December 1, 2007

life in the campo

Now that I’m in the campo (country) and have a few hours to spare, the time is ripe for some juicy details about my life here in the Dominican Republic. For those of you wondering how I’ve managed to write such a lengthy essay if I have to pay an arm and a leg for internet access, thank the wonders of laptop computer technology and thumb drives. Enjoy!

Part I- In which I meet my village and embarrass myself immensely.
November 13, 2007- I spent the first half of the day in a conference center in the capital, meeting my two project partners and navigating the awkward silence that quickly developed after we had discussed their families, their trip to the capital, and the weather. In the early afternoon we began the more-than-four-hour journey to my home for the next two years. The first bus we took traveled from the capital to Nagua, the closest large city to my village. We then caught another bus, and finally took a fifteen-minute ride on motorcycle taxis up to our community. I dropped my luggage off at my house, all the while being told that we were late although no one bothered to tell me what exactly we were late for. As we approached the “club” (an open air pavilion used by the community for meetings), I saw a crowd of about 80 people sitting inside. They all turned their heads to watch my arrival, and then stood up and cheered. I was led to the front of the pavilion and shown my seat, which happened to be facing the entire audience. One of my project partners introduced me to the crowd, and then asked me to say a few words. No pressure or anything. I told everyone my name and how excited I was to begin working with the community. I also explained to them that I would actually only be here for five days, before leaving for the capital for a week. That provoked a few confused stares, so I assured them that I would be back shortly and for good. I opened the floor to questions, which turned out to be a big mistake. The one and only question I received was, “Do you know how to dance bachata?” I answered that I was still learning, and the community would have to teach me more. The man who asked the question took my answer literally, and asked the organizers to put on a song so that he could teach me in front of 80 people. The truth is, I can hold my own dancing bachata, but I was so flustered by the crowd that I tripped on my own feet and stepped on the man’s shoes more than a few times. Apparently I hadn’t embarrassed myself enough by dancing, because after we finished dancing one of my counterparts grabbed the microphone and announced to everyone that I also knew how to SING bachata. I was given the microphone and forced to sing, without music, the chorus of Zacarias Ferreria’s “Es tan dificil.” Sufficiently embarrassed at this point, I was allowed to sit down and everyone was served a snack of bread, cheese, and fruit punch. Thus went my introduction to the community.

Part II- In which I move houses after five days.
During my five-day-long site visit, I was living with one woman in a house built for at least six people, which was great because I had a large room and there was indoor plumbing. The doña, a widow in her mid-sixties, was caring and friendly, but there were definitely some negatives to living there. For starters, she didn’t really talk to me. Also, there were rats living in the rafters of my bedroom, so when I laid in bed every night I could look up and see them scurrying around. Sometimes they even left little presents for me on the floor. The worst part about living there was that the house is about 10 minutes downhill from the rest of the village, leaving me isolated from everyone but my doña. I couldn’t leave the house at night or when it rained, which is almost a daily occurrence here. The ability to deal with constant solitude is not one of my strong points, and I quickly realized that living in that house for three months would be quite detrimental to my mental health, not to mention to the work I’m supposed to be accomplishing here. The site visit lasted five days, and then I returned to the capital for the end of training, Thanksgiving celebrations, and a conference for all of the volunteers in the DR. While I was in the capital, I talked to the director of the youth program about moving houses and she put a plan in motion. Although I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of my original dona, I knew that there had to be a better home for me somewhere in the village. Thankfully, one was found. I am now living in the village with a couple and their two sons, and so far so good. I’m much less isolated here, and there is always something to be done around the house. The couple makes empanadas, bread, and other little snacks to sell, plus they own some pigs and chickens that live behind the house. Nonetheless, I will be pretty excited to move out on my own when the time comes. Because I live in such a rural community, houses up for rent are in short supply so I’m already on the lookout for a future house. So far, there are two possibilities—neither with an indoor bathroom—but I’ll take what I can get.

Part III- In which I experience the wrath of a crazy Dominican woman.

I have been pretty lucky here in my village, in that I have been getting to know a fair amount of people and could even say I have a few friends. At this point, my closest friend is a twenty-year-old girl who lives down the street. From the day I arrived, she took it upon herself to show me around the community and even comforted me when I was feeling pretty down about the loneliness/isolation situation. Her family has been very welcoming to me, so when she asked if I wanted to travel with them to another town to celebrate her cousin’s birthday, I accepted. She has two little cousins, seven and four years old, and their father was taking them to eat pizza and ice cream in a nearby tourist town. The five of us (myself, my friend, her two little cousins, and their dad) piled into a pickup truck and headed for town. On the way, we stopped and talked to a woman on a motor scooter. I could sense some tension between the woman and the girls’ father, but wasn’t really sure what was going on. They got into a screaming match and I figured out that the woman was actually the girls’ estranged mother who somehow got it into her head that her husband was cheating on her and living with me. This struck me as laughably ridiculous because I’d only been living here for a cumulative seven days, I’d only met the man that day, and I was only along for the ride because my friend had invited me. The woman proceeded to get into the pickup truck and for the rest of the night made all sorts of snide remarks directed towards me. While her attitude made for an uncomfortable atmosphere, she didn’t really bother me just because the entire situation was so absurd. If anything, I felt bad for the two little girls because their mom was really not putting her best foot forward, or however that saying goes.

Part IV- In which I constantly battle boredom but am now trying to embrace it.
Having grown up in Baltimore, I considered Saint Mary’s County to be “country living.” I couldn’t be more wrong. I now live in a community of about 300 people (I think), where the majority of people are married with children by age twenty and few are employed, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Most people here work with livestock, on small family-owned plots of land, or running tiny businesses such as selling peanut brittle on the side of the one paved road in town. Regardless of age or employment, basically every member of the community has quite a bit of free time on their hands. This includes myself. Peace Corps wants us new volunteers to spend our first three months in site working on a community diagnostic and little else, which is a great idea in theory but in practice requires a lot of patience on the part of the volunteer. Maybe if I were in a city this waiting period could be more easily navigated, but here in the campo, there aren’t as many activities with which one can fill their time. Means of entertainment are a lot simpler here. During my site visit, I spent about ten hours doing peanut-related chores—shelling, toasting, and cleaning the nuts for the aforementioned peanut brittle. Since moving here permanently about a week ago, I’ve spent approximately fifteen hours playing dominoes and more than twenty hours sitting in front of the colmado (corner store) at the only intersection in town. I cannot fully express just how bored I was during my first few days here; sitting in a plastic chair and watching motorcycles and the occasional truck pass by was not quite the stimulation my brain was seeking. However, as I spend more and more time here, I’m adjusting to the slower pace of life. I make lists of everything: ideas for activities in my community, things I need to look up on the internet, and items that would be great to get in a care package…. I even use my free time to make a list of things to do with my free time. I linger in people’s houses, chatting with them with the secret hope that they will give me something tasty to eat. It’s Dominican custom to offer a snack and/or drink to guests, and I have to say I have benefited immensely from the practice. I also find that my standards for entertainment have changed considerably. Today, while sitting in front of the colmado, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, look at how much traffic there is on the road today.” I then had to hold back my laughter, because the traffic I referred to was actually just one truck stopped in the middle of the road and another behind it, waiting for the first truck to move. Later in the day, a chicken escaped from its coop and flew into a tree. The ensuing chase of the errant chicken, which was destined to be lunch the next day, provided me with a solid hour of entertainment. I can only imagine what my entertainment will consist of after two years here.

Part V- In which I struggle with big questions. Kind of.
Things here are good—I’m living with a well-respected and welcoming family, making friends, learning to manage my boredom, and beginning to see how I as a Peace Corps volunteer fit into the life of the community. My loneliness is slowly abating as I become more comfortable with people here, which is not to say that I don’t have times where all I want is to talk to someone who has known me for more than three weeks. But yes, I think I am doing pretty well here. Still, there are some things that I can’t really avoid thinking about, looming in the distance like huge thunderclouds in an otherwise blue sky. I am concerned about my effectiveness as a volunteer—will I be able to actually accomplish all, or for that matter any, of the things my community expects of me? There are so many possible projects here, but where the hell do I start? Since this is supposed to be sustainable development, how do I find a balance between getting things done and being the only one doing them? In addition to my own insecurities, there are grander societal issues at work and I’m not sure yet as to how to handle them. Teen pregnancy is incredibly common in my community, but it seems hypocritical to tell these young people to wait until they’re older and have a steady job to have children, when they most likely won’t ever have a steady job in the way that I mean it. And speaking of jobs, there are none here. Even the brightest high school graduates either start their own families right away or move out of the community, because there are few jobs and rarely any money to go to university, so the only way to earn it is to work somewhere else. Every single family in the community has at least one member working abroad, either in the United States, Spain, or Puerto Rico. Many people here live almost entirely off of remittances, and most dream of one day moving abroad and earning money in “dolares” or euros. American culture has a strong influence here, but there are also unbelievable gaps in development—the night we went out for pizza, my friend’s younger cousins wore cute little pink Timberland boots and Baby Phat t-shirts but didn’t know how to open a door with a doorknob or use a flush toilet. In the traditional sense, the Dominican Republic isn’t a typical Peace Corps country. I don’t live in a hut or have to walk 16 miles to the nearest pay phone. There are plenty of people here with a university education and a steady job and internet service in their house. But there are many more people that don’t have access to those privileges, and it’s almost worse because their situation is waved in front of their faces daily. Through telenovelas, family members living abroad, interaction with tourists, and even through me with two pairs of glasses and a laptop computer, people are constantly reminded of what they could have, but don’t. I’m trying as hard as I can to keep my perspective and remember that I didn’t come here to fix everything, mostly because that just won’t be possible. At the moment, two years seems like an eternity to me but in the life of a community it’s just a drop in the bucket. Hopefully the projects developed during my time here will stimulate more and more positive change for my village. For now, I’m just sitting here in my plastic chair, watching motorcycles go by and wondering how the hell I can get all of these tiny ants to surrender the home they’ve made in my laptop.

1 comment:

Monica said...

Ah, this was a great entry! I'm glad I happened to click on your facebook profile and find this blog :)

It sounds like you're adapting slowly and steadily, so that's really good. I can't imagine leaving for as long as you are -- I've even cut my trip down here in BA back by half -- but I'm sure you're going to do perfectly well down there.

Adjusting your expectations about places and experiences is a part of travel no matter where you go or for how long as you're prepared for that, you'll be just fine.