Thursday, February 16, 2012

Aniversario, Carnaval and Volunteer of the Month

I almost don't even want to touch on the subject of my negligence of this blog.  6 months passed by as if they were a few fleeting moments--but they were packed with plenty of action.  I was home in Houston for the holidays for the first time since I've been in service.  My 16 days at home were much needed--I hung out with my family over coffee, homemade meals and wine and got to see the extended family at a bridal shower thrown by my sister/maid of honor. 

As is always the case, after vacation, normal life begins again at an excelerated speed.  January and February have been full of work.  At Caminante we are in the final push to finish the study that has been in the works for the last seven months.  As a result, I've been working long hours, and sometimes weekends to get the final data necessary and being to analyze it. 

February is the season of Carnaval, my second in country.  Latin America's Mardi Gras, this four weekend long celebration is a big deal here in the DR.  This February we also celebrated the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.  We were lucky enough to have Aaron Williams, the Director of Peace Corps (in Washington) in attendence since he is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from the DR!  He came with his wife of many years, Rosa from La Vega, whom he met during his Peace Corps service.  I had the opportunity to market Caminante at the artisan fair which was held during the celebration and we sold some of the jewelry and other goods made at our technical school. 

Since I've been so out of touch---I'd like to include the link to a write-up that was done on me in January which includes most of the projects I've been working on.   

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Year In!

Yes, it´s official.  I have been in country for a full year.  The Dominican Republic will now be the place where I´ve spent the most amount of time other than the US, and the way things are going, it looks like that´s not going to change!  I´ve accomplished a lot in a year, but I feel like there is SO much left to do.  I´m smack dab in the middle of what I hope will be the most meaningful project/resource I leave with Caminante, the study we are currently doing on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.  I´ve visited a lot of places in this country, but still have a lot more to go!  I´ve given guest charlas at a number of teacher conferences and volunteer trainings, and hope to expand my work in this area in the year to come in my own community.  And finally, as many of you already know, I got engaged!  The last, and most recent, is perhaps the most unexpected but by far the most life changing.  When we learned the hefty statistics of people that find their life partners in the Peace Corps (especially in PC Dominican Republic, which has the 2nd highest marriage rate of volunteers in all programs in the world, apparently) I remember thinking, that WON'T be me.  Just goes to show how little you really know about what life has in store for you.  I can be a control freak and plan my entire academic and professional career....but love just doesn't work that way!  For those of you that know me well, you'll be happy to hear that I am a much more relaxed and happier version of my self since meeting my life partner and integrating into this country in general.  Almost half way through my service, I cannot be happier with where I am and more excited about what the next year brings.  I will, of course, try and continue to share my experiences in brief and relatively frequent glimpses via this blog.  Thanks to everyone who's been following!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I was thinking the other day on my journey to this place in my life and reflecting on the importance of having been a teacher in my ability to deal (if not in perfect grace, at least with some semblance of composure) with just about any situation thrown in my direction.  I knew that teaching (and every other charge I performed which doesn’t quite fit into that clean and clear category) was an important skill set, but I had no idea how amply it would prepare me for a much broader future career.  Education, as I experienced it, is a lesson in human behavior.  The notion of power,how to use it effectively, how it can be abused; the idea of true collaboration, creating a shared space for which there is equally shared investment and care; and the wonders of positive reinforcement in affecting an outcome for which you are not directly responsible but very much accountable--all of these lessons I learned within the four walls of my classroom (messily but authentically).  Now as I face different kinds of challenges, organizational challenges, often with adults rather than children, I am all the more thankful for my prior experiences, as they have helped immensely in shaping my capacity in my current work. 
And speaking of reflections, I am consistently surprised when reminded of the fact that I am less than one month from completing my first year in country.  While the first months were somewhat grueling, the last four or five have taken on a sort of rhythm where my presence here no longer feels like an “experience” but simply, my life.  I suppose that is a positive sign of my integration here….which leaves me worrying a bit about what my reintegration might be like into my former reality….BUT, there’s still quite some time before I need to be thinking about that!    
On another note, some people have been asking me what I do with my free time.  Honestly, there is not as much of it as I predicted for Peace Corps, given the nature of my job, but I do try and keep most evenings and at least one day of the weekend for myself.  Despite the terrible electricity, I’ve started watching more television…a bad habit I picked up here.  There’s a news show that keeps me up to date with what’s going on in the States, and then my guilty pleasure, a new telenovela--“El Capo”—a Colombian soap opera/drama about the government’s struggle to capture one of its most infamous drug lords.  I’ve also taken up cooking, thanks to my boyfriend (who is a magnificent cook) and rather than cooking for sustenance, as I did in times past, I actually enjoy trying new dishes.  He has all of the Dominican cuisine covered, so I’ve been making some Italian and American dishes like seafood alfredo pasta, eggplant parmesean, tuna salad, and chicken quiche.  Finally, most weekends I try and make it into the capital to hang out with my family here.  Those are my favorite moments—hanging out at the colmado or under the giant tree on the corner, barbequing, chatting, playing with the kids—the simple life, far away from the stress of work life and living in a barrio caliente.  Now that it’s summer and hot as can be imagined, the beach is a priority destination (I’ve been averaging about twice a month) given that my recreational beach is only about 15 minutes from my house by bus (I don’t go to the beach in Boca Chica for fun, since the kids that Caminante work those beaches on the weekends).  I got stung by my first jellyfish the other day!  Guess it can't be all fun and games;)  But summer's been good....just a month to go before this heat begins to peel off!
barrio caliente- dangerous neighborhood

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The heat of summer en el Caribe....

While summer officially began only a week ago, it has been in full swing here in the DR for over a month.  May and June have been full of torrential downpours alternating with agonizing heat.  While electricity was fairly constant a little over a month ago, lately there have been constant apagones that wake me up in a sweat in the middle of the night when my abanico stops sending cool air in my direction.  Rumor has it, my neighborhood, Andres, is being considered for the “24/7” program, which would guarantee consistent electricity.  The accuracy of this information is unclear…whether it be a coping mechanism of the Doñas( who have been enduring full 8 to 5 days Monday to Friday without an ounce of electricity to wash clothes, turn on the bomba that brings water out of the pipes at more than than a trickle) or a legitimate possibility, given that the majority of people in my barrio actually pay for their luz.
Though summer normally brings a slowed pace of work in the States, here we are in overdrive.  Caminante hosted a group of about 20 American students and professors from Hiram College for nearly three weeks at the end of May.  They came armed with 4 months of preparation and materials to work in science education, health checkups and microfinance, and a bundle of goodwill and easygoingness that made my hectic job of coordination and translation a very rewarding and at times even a fun experience!  Their journey of eye opening experiences and changing perspectives on life made me reminisce on my first experience in Latin America, 11 years ago in the mountains of Mexico.  It reminded me the importance of the Peace Corps´ 3rd Goal, helping Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries”.  They created a wonderful blog called “Walking with Caminante” that is full of pictures and chronicles of their experience.
In early June I took a break from the heat (or so I thought) for my first visit back to the States.  My trip consisted of visiting my sister in New York and a wedding in Rhode Island of a close friend from my teaching days.  Stepping off the subway into my old hood was shocking, seeing it all from a new perspective… “Were the buildings really this tall?  The streets this clean?  Central Park this pristine?”   But I quickly fell into the rhythm of my old New York life, if only for a week, and caught up with many old friends.   
Upon returning to work, I have hardly come up for air (I have a theory, which I cannot claim as my own, that one pays for vacation upon returning), minus a short visit from friends Jenna and Kiril from New Orleans and a quick adventure to the 27 Waterfalls of the North Coast (which we  jumped off, one by one…thrilling!!!).  In May, I collaborated with my Executive Director to write a grant to the International Office of Migration to fund an action research study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Boca Chica, something she has wanted Caminante to produce for some time.  Such a study would help legitimize their interventions as evidence based and solidify their position as the go to organization on the topic.  We were extremely happy to find out (right before I left for the States) that the grant was being funded, and for more than the original amount we had budgeted! (how often does that happen?).  The only catch---we had four months to implement the study and begin providing services for this new population, and yours truly would be coordinating the project.  While I was a bit daunted at first, I knew this was one of the main projects that my director had solicited a Peace Corps volunteer for, and the fact that we were able to get funds and get the project up and rolling with only 7 months in my position was a major feat.  So here I am amidst investigative instruments, community and research team meetings, and a lot of paperwork, chugging along.   Next on the list for summer…. Caminante SUMMER CAMP!!!
A final note:  I finished Caminante's webpage at the beginning of June.  Check it out at and let me know what you think!

Apagon: blackout
Abanico: fan
Doña: Dominican equivalent to Señora but invoking even more respect.  The Doña is the all-powerful female head of household who  is in charge of all things that that comprise life in the home and who generally kick butt and makes things happen. 

bomba: electric pump
Luz: literally translates to ¨light¨, but used to refer to electricity

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dear abandoned blog followers...

I have no excuse for the lapse of over two months in my blog except for the fact that my life here has gained such a pace of normalcy that blogging has taken a backseat to daily life.  Certainly there are still cultural differences that I experience frequently, situations that are trying and successes that are worth noting....but the pace of life has slowed down a bit, and I decided to just live for a bit instead of chronicle.  To make an analogy, it’s sort of like trying to capture a notable experience in pictures.  Sometimes, in focusing on having pictures to capture the moment and share it with others, you lose the authenticity of actually experiencing it. 

Anyway, enough with excuses.  I decided, in honor of my first birthday in the DR, I must return to my blog, because at the end of the day, sharing my experiences is important to me (and hopefully to my readers too!)

In March and April I have been busy putting on events, working and enjoying time with my family here (my biological family, who visited in March and my adopted family in the capital).  Some highlights-

International Women’s Day- March 8th

I wrote a grant to put on an event in conjunction with my organization that would highlight the life experiences of women in the community who had survived difficult situations and had used their experience in courses at our technical school to start their own small businesses.  We expected 100 women, and 150 showed up, including the Director of my sector and the press.  It was a huge success and a moment in my PC experience that I will remember forever.

My Familia in the DR!

My parents and three sisters spent a week here in the DR.  They visited my site, where we had lunch with the staff from my organization, and also visited my apartment for dinner!  Later we went to a resort in Juan Dolio for a few days of R&R, and ended in the capital touring the Colonial Zone and having a barbeque with my host family at their house.  Overall, we had a blast, but time flew too quickly!

Semana Santa

Semana Santa leading up to Easter is a big deal here.  I traveled to Bavaro (near Punta Cana) out east to the beach with my host family and boyfriend for a four day weekend.  We had a blast (and got really burnt!) cooking, hanging out on the beach and enjoying each other’s company.  With 10 people in a 2 bedroom apartment it was a tight squeeze, but I’ve realized you don’t have to be in luxury to have a good time!

This month is going to be busier than ever with a group visiting from the States for two weeks to do some service projects with us.  I will be the logistical translator throughout, a tiring job but hopefully well worth it given all the projects these groups will be implementing with our staff and beneficiaries.  Before all that begins, I’m headed to the beach this weekend to celebrate my birthday with Peace Corps buddy Tina is turning 30 this weekend so we are doing a joint b’day gig.
Miss you all!!!!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

February in a nutshell

WOW!!  Where did February go?  I know it's the shortest month and all, but really it flew!!  I spent a week at my three month In-Service training at the beginning of the month defining my role as a volunteer over the next 12 months and it's been non-stop ever since!!!

Life is great in Boca Chica....and extremely busy.

Highlights in February:

Chicas Brillantes Regional Conference-- I took two girls and a co-facilitator to a conference outside of La Vega up on a mountain above the city the second weekend in February (see pic).  "Chicas Brillantes" is an extension of a world-wide Peace Corps gender initiative, "Camp GLOW".  It's purpose is to build self-esteem and an awareness of gender related issues among young women in the DR, and the specific purpose of the conference was to help us get our youth groups started.  The girls (and I) had a blast--listened to some amazing charlas, pushed some personal boundaries and made new friends from around the country.  Our Chicas Brillantes group is now 20 girls strong and two meetings in, so the momentum seemed to work!

First month in my own place-- So while living alone can be a bit daunting for a scaredy -cat like me (especially in the middle of the night [every night] when car alarms are going off in front of my house!), the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks.  Having my own space to come home to at the end of a hectic day is wonderful and my apartment is cozy and perfect.

Nelle's visit-- My good friend from college came down as part of her Masters research and did a session with my organization on publicity to spark enthusiasm behind the website we (I) are working on getting up and running.  We had a whirlwind week between hanging with the host family in the capital--Bachata concert, family beach day (14 people in 2 cars!) and work in Boca Chica.  It was great catching up and Nelle helped me ease into my new apartment!

Becoming a godmother!--  A cousin of my host family asked me to be godmother to her daughter Nashla (see pic).  This was not an official church baptism (which comes later apparently) but a neighborhood baptism performed by an old respected woman in the community.  I had to hold the baby along with the godfather (me the body, he the feet) while water was sprinkled and prayers were said and ceremonially hand her off to her mother as a new Christian.  The short ceremony was, of course, followed by a rowdy family celebration complete with Sancocho and Presidente.

Carnaval!!!- The Dominican Republic is apparently second only to Brazil in its Carnaval celebrations.  I went to La Vega on Sunday, the the city with the largest and most cultural celebration.  The revelry was, for me, a mix between Mardi Gras and what I understand to be traditional carnaval.  Paraders wore colorful suits likened to the "Mardi Gras Indians" of New Orleans but had devilish scary masks covering their faces.  Each "tribe" had their designated devils with giant rubber balls (filled with something heavy...felt like rocks!) on a string that would wind them up and hit anyone in shooting range on the backside.  Whenever that group came through periodically the crowd desperately inched away.  I thought I had escaped my lashing, but near the end one snuck up behind me.  Even with a few beers in me, it still ached for almost an hour!  Aside from that smarting tradition, the celebration was colorful and magical.

My family comes in less than two weeks.  I can't wait to see them!

Phrase of the week (I guess I should change this to month;) )--
"Dime a ver"
Literally translates into "Tell me, Lets see" but this is a phrase of greeting used by many Dominicans similar to "What's up" or "What's goin on", especially when answering the telephone.  No "hola como estas" but lets get down to business!  For those of you from the Full House generation, it reminds me of Uncle Jesse's infamous telephone greeting "Taaaalk to me".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Some thoughts on development...

I should be sleeping right now because tomorrow morning I have to finish organizing my new place and pack to head into the capital for a few days to meet Nelle, a long time friend and fellow traveler (we met sharing a host family in Mexico during a summer abroad program when I was 18 and she was 20) who is coming to the DR for a week to visit and do research for her Masters project.  A few things from the day and the week have left me thinking though, and I thought it might to time for a good’ol blog posting.

Yesterday there was a nationwide news-like program (think 20/20) that ran a special on child prostitution and trafficking in Boca Chica.  Some of the kids that we work with regularly showed up in the video in a misconstrued light and, as a result, we had their families in our office today to figure out if the press was involved in misrepresenting their stories.  In the process of this meeting it was brought to our attention that there is an American down here who is sexually exploiting young Haitian girls.  This is, unfortunately, not the first case I’ve heard of in the last three months of Americans being mixed up in, or more specifically creating the demand for, commercial sexual exploitation of children in my community.  (For those of you who, like me until very recently, are wondering the difference between “commercial sexual exploitation” and prostitution, the former involves minors and coercion while the latter assumes independent adult decision-making to sell ones body for money.) 

This image of the “gringo” is quite common in Boca Chica. and, being a tourist town, is coupled with an even more rampant portrayal of the gringo as a person with deep pockets who gifts money.  Neither of these images is positive and both have created challenges for me in my work.  Unfortunately, the latter is reinforced by the well-intentioned but not always well-informed church groups that come down to play the role of benevolent benefactor from the rich soils of the good old US of A.  I’ll explain my issues with this kind of charity.  While it might make us feel good, it does very little good for those we (and I say we, because, by nature of being from the US, I am grouped in with this population) are pretending to help.  It creates a sense of entitlement, stunting community organizing (instead of “how can we come together as a community with our skills and resources to build a house for a needy neighbor”, it’s “when are the gringos coming again to build those houses like they did last year”).  It is also unsustainable, and creates dependency instead of capacity (a dollar not earned is a dollar often spent with little thought or planning).  So as to keep this sentiment focused and not sound like I’m ranting, I invite all of my friends and families to consider where they are putting their charity dollars and whether the projects they support are in fact sustainable and building capacity in the populations they reach.    I hope to provide the opportunity in the near future to donate to some of Caminante’s projects that support personal growth, creativity and income generation.  Some examples are our technical school, which is open to the community at a minimal cost to learn a variety of vocations (beauty, massage, bartending, IT, graphic design, jewelry making, and gourmet baking to name a few) or our microfinance group which includes 15 women who have opened their own businesses using valuable artisan skills with small loans from our institution.

My appreciation for my own host organization, the Peace Corps, has grown as I come to better recognize the authenticity with which they carry out development work.  Peace Corps is not an organization that gives money directly to developing countries but rather provides knowledge and skills through the intermediary of its volunteers.  Last week, as I presented my diagnostic investigation to Caminante, I worked with my colleages to define my role in the organization.  Because I am, by nature, a capacity builder, I stressed that no initiative that I carry out during my service should be independent but rather collaborative.  As a result, I will be both trainer and mentor.  I will be supervising Caminante’s five educators—helping to sistematize and evaluate their community work with youth.  I will also be helping with monitoring and evaluation on a larger scale by training staff in methodologies and best practices.  Finally, I will help Caminante to expand and at the same time focus their reach through curriculum development for the number of populations we work with.  So while there have been challenges in these past few months, I am excited to have a clear idea of what my first year of service will look like.