Be with those who help your being

I’m staying in the Dominican Republic.

I’ve been wanting to write this post for several months now, but as I didn’t know quite how to frame my thoughts, I decided to wait.

After close to two years out of country, I returned to the United States last December for one week. Walking out of the terminal at JFK I remember being struck by two things: how clean everything was, and how quiet the airport was. In contrast to the ear-splitting noise and dust one finds in the Dominican Republic, this alone was a huge culture shock. I felt like I was in a morgue, and a clean one at that. And then came the first time I spoke to another American who wasn’t a family member or Peace Corps Volunteer in two years, my tongue fumbling over phrases and searching for words in the language I had spent 23 years in. And after that was my first car ride, marveling at the order and constancy of American traffic and roads, and rediscovering just how easy it is to move yourself in the United States. These were a few of the surprising yet familiar sights and sounds I was exposed to in my first few minutes back home.

The week passed by in a whirlwind. Although I loved every minute of it, I had one reoccurring thought every time I laid my head down on my pillow each night: My Peace Corps service ends in four months. In four months, this will be my new normal.

And then: I don’t know if I’m ready for it.

Before that trip I had applied and been accepted into 6 graduate schools, with varying degrees of prestige and scholarship offers. I had also applied unsuccessfully for a Fulbright scholarship. Yet with all of these choices—some very attractive, others less so—my mind kept coming back to Peace Corps, and the Dominican people. Especially the Dominican people.

Truth be told, I don’t feel finished with the Dominican Republic. This country is breathtaking in its diversity. From clouded, misty mountain ranges higher than any peak found in the Appalachians, to the humid semitropical rain-forest I called home for two years, to aquamarine beaches, to Spanish colonial city of Santo Domingo where I now live, this country astounds in the span of its scale. On a daily basis, I see things that make me laugh, cringe, and cry, and I am continually humbled, inspired, and frustrated with the challenges of living in a developing country. I can’t really ask for anything else.

I don’t feel finished with my role in the Peace Corps, either. In many ways I was a much less effective volunteer than I could have been, and as a I transition into a leadership role in the country’s capital for the next 13 months I’m looking forward to seeing how I can help others avoid the same pitfalls I experienced.

Officially, my title is Peace Corps Leader for the Education Sector in the Dominican Republic. Unofficially, I am a volunteer trainer, workshop facilitator, technical support system, coordinator, and general sounding board for volunteers in the field. I frequently visit and provide support to volunteers in their communities- which are in some of the most far-flung, isolated places of this country- and I also participate in site development of new Peace Corps communities by speaking with public schools, organizing community meetings, and staying with potential host families.  It’s a challenging job, and I’ve already gained a much deeper understanding of the work that goes into running successful development programs with government agencies.

Two years is a long time, and it was hard to say goodbye to my community in my green hills of San Cristóbal, and to see my Peace Corps friends who came to this country  with me get on the airplane to start the next chapters in their lives. I’m the type of guy who gets teary at State Farm commercials, and who cries every time I have to say goodbye to my Dad, and these goodbyes were no exception.

I’m not sure how much I am going to keep writing in this blog in this next year. My goal when I started Peace Corps was to publish 27 posts, one for each month of my Peace Corps service. With this addition, I will have 25 posts since 2014. I want to write at least 27 before I leave the country in June 2017, but I doubt I will write much more after reaching that number. As my time here has extended, it has gotten harder and harder to write. I felt like I was repeating themes, and I don’t want to cheapen the experience by sounding monotonous to readers back home. I haven’t stopped seeing the magic in the Dominican Republic; on the contrary, I am daily exposed anew to the beauty and wonder of this quirky, pushy little island, and I am thankful I made the decision to stay one more year. However, for better or worse I just don’t feel like I have as much to share anymore. Besides, with this blog I am writing for an audience that includes family members and future employers, which means I have to censor certain feelings and withhold certain experiences from my posts. That’s not good writing. A braver person would acknowledge this, and write from his heart anyway. Unfortunately, I have never been able to find that kind of courage in my pen.

Much of Peace Corps is learning to be OK with incomplete, unfinished, unsure works. In that regard, maybe this blog can be a good representation of that.

With that said, I’m signing off. Thank you for listening, reading, and laughing with and at me for the last two years. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I tried to stay faithful to this blog because I’ve been around long enough to know that memories are overrated. They change on you, shimmering and shining in the mind like glittering fish in a stream. I’ve moved- from places, peoples, perspectives- enough times to know that the inconstancy of memory is perhaps the one promise we have in this life. It’s why I believe so much in the art of prose. No other medium can capture, can hook what you are living, so vividly and intimately. If you do it right, the fish is pulled to the shallows, and it stays there to touch and be touched, incandescent and pulsing with the vigor of the river.

Thanks to your comments, encouragement, and gentle yet persistent hounding to post more often, I now have a pond of fish that will help me remember my Peace Corps service for the rest of my life. So thank you.

Before I go, here’s a few highlights from my last couple of months.

 

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As part of a one-year extension with Peace Corps, Peace Corps pays for a one-month leave. I timed my leave with my sister’s graduation from the Coast Guard Academy, and got to see her walk the stage to receive her billet orders in late May.

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During my leave my sisters and I also took a road trip to my old stomping grounds in Colorado. This picture is from the top of Mount Quandary, one of my favorite 14ers.

 

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During a Peace Corps trip to visit several volunteers that live along the Haitian-Dominican border, for two days I helped a volunteer who is building a basketball court with her community. To get to her site, I hitchhiked roughly 50 miles up the International Highway- which translates to a narrow dirt road that climbs through the largest mountain range on the island- to an unmarked crossroads. From there I walked 5 kilometers, crossing a river in the process, to get to her community. This is one of the best parts of my new job: peering firsthand into the magic that happens when the right volunteer meets the right community.

 

 

 

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New friends in the capital. This was at the house of Micely, the technical trainer who trained the last group of volunteers with me.

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Micely is bottom left. On the right is Jenna, the other Peace Corps Leader for the Education Sector.

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A few weeks ago we went camping in a beautiful mountain valley in the center of the country called Valle Nuevo.

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I finally took advantage of my Advanced Diving certification. On July 3rd we did two deep water dives on shipwrecks off the Caribbean coast of the island, penetrating both ships. Max depth reached was 120 feet.

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On a pebble beach in the South of the Dominican Republic with four other volunteers who have signed up for a third year of service.

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It’s hard to believe the group of volunteers I helped train has already been in their Peace Corps communities for 3 months. We just finished a training conference with them and their counterparts, and I’m excited for the school year to start.

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The new office, replete with a steady diet of mangoes and coffee.

 

This whole time I’ve been getting it all wrong. I’ve been trying to find the perfect place.  I loved my little small Appalachian town where I went to college in Virginia. Summer stays in Peru, Colombia, and Ireland all found little corners of my heart. Colorado captured my soul in a way that I had never before felt. The pulse of the Dominican Republic will forever run in my blood. And this past month I saw my home state of Texas with the perspective and lens of someone who had been gone two years and forgotten how much he has there.

Every place is perfect, and no place is.

What I have to do is try to form the strongest relationships I can with people while I’m in each place, and then hold onto those relationships like hell when one of us leaves. If one of us don’t leave a little bit better person, and if at the time of goodbye there aren’t genuine emotions, then we didn’t do it right. For this last year I’m here in country (I know I’ve said this before… but really Mom, I mean it this time), I want to dedicate myself to this relationship-building process.

A long time ago, a friend gave me a poem that speaks to this. I have included fragments of this poem in this blog before, but here it is in its entirety.  Read it twice aloud, it’s worth it.

Be with those who help your being.
Don’t sit with indifferent people, whose breath
comes cold out of their mouths.
Not these visible forms, your work is deeper.

A chunk of dirt thrown in the air breaks to pieces.
If you don’t try to fly,
and so break yourself apart,
you will be broken open by death,
when it’s too late for all you could become.

Leaves get yellow. The tree puts out fresh roots
and makes them green.
Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?

-Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi

 

Una entrevista sobre mi tiempo en la República Dominicana

En mi tiempo como voluntario de Cuerpo de Paz, uno de mis pasatiempos era trabajar como editor para una revista que se publica el Cuerpo de Paz bianualmente. Incluidas en cada publicación son entrevistas de voluntarios que ya están para completar sus voluntariados de dos años y salir de país. Estas entrevistas detallan sus experiencias trabajando y viviendo en RD. Respuestas de las preguntas de la entrevista típicamente varían desde bastante chistosas hasta sumamente profundas, ya que dos años fuera de su país provee un espacio para mucho desarrollo personal. Ya que completé mi voluntariado en San Cristóbal al partir de mayo de 2016, también realicé una de estas entrevistas.

Ésta es mi entrevista de mi tiempo en Quisqueya, y la publico aquí para que mis queridos dominicanos puedan leer un poco acerca de mi experiencia en su bello país. ¡Espero que disfruten!

***For my English speakers in the U.S., I will be publishing more posts—in English—in the coming weeks 🙂  Stay tuned.

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Una mata de flamboyán en la provincia de San Cristóbal. Este árbol para mi será siempre un símbolo del color, el optimismo, y la energía de la Republica Dominicana y sus ciudadanos.   A flamboyant tree in the San Cristobal province. This tree will always symbolize for me the color, optimism, and energy of the Dominican Republic and its people.

 

 

Connor Toomey

Cita senior:The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” – Frederick Buechner

Apodos: Kanor, ¡Way!

Ubicación de comunidad: Dos campos en las laderas de la Cordillera Central en San Cristóbal.

Sector: EDU

Asignación de proyecto: Proveer apoyo técnico e instrucción a los maestros, y dirección en los dos centros educativos.

Realidad de proyecto: Pase un año trabajando en una de mis escuelas asignadas, y después de un año decidí expandir mi enfoque y trabajé en mi otra comunidad asignada, además de empezar un par de programas juveniles en colaboración con otra voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz en el liceo principal de mi municipio. De ahí arrancó mi servicio, y hasta ahora hemos hecho dos programas de Deportes para la Vida, el segundo del cual fue con tres muchachos sobresalientes de cuarto grado como facilitadores y un programa de Brigada Verde en el liceo. Aparte de eso, en continuación de un taller de liderazgo que realizamos el año pasado con el maestro de deportes en el liceo, actualmente estamos facilitando un curso de liderazgo en el liceo con 20 estudiantes. También hemos hecho numerosos talleres en las escuelas básicas más necesitadas de mi distrito 04-02 con uno de mis mejores panas y futuro maestro, Sandy. El más destacado fue un taller de 50 maestros y administradores que involucró a 6 escuelas en la zona. Esto fue un esfuerzo colaborativo entre el voluntario Andy Walsh, la ONG Centro Dominicano para la Paz, maestros de varias escuelas, y yo. Sin embargo, pienso que mi programa más interesante, sin mencionar más divertida, fue un programa de Somos Familia con la Asociación de Agricultura en mi comunidad. La mayoría de los miembros cuentan con más de 50 años de edad y no saben leer. Fue interesante buscar la manera para compartir información con ellos en una manera que entendieran. ¡Ay! Y también mi estrella de directora que nos inspiró realizar un financiamiento para crear “mini-bibliotecas” en cada aula.

Más útil: Una licenciatura en español. Experiencia previa viviendo y trabajando en Perú y Colombia. Pero que no se hagan ilusiones porque lo que sé de trabajo comunitario y español lo aprendí aquí mismo. También, una actitud general de sinvergüenza.

Menos útil: Una licenciatura en inglés. Un laptop que no sirvió para nada. Ropa que me hacía ver como si fuera un misionero de mormón. Los mormones son mi gente, pero si estas intentando hacer amistades aquí, ropa así no te va a servir mucho.

El mejor “Ya sé que estoy en el Cuerpo de Paz” momento: Mi segundo día aquí en RD, me desperté por la primera vez en Pantoja a ver este espectáculo: mi hermanito dominicano de cinco años de edad sentado DENTRO de la nevera mientras comía cerezos y tiraba las semillas en el piso de la cocina. Al mismo tiempo, su hermanito de tres años de edad estaba parado encima del RESPALDAR de una silla plástica con su mano metida hasta el codo en un tanque de cangrejos. ¿Y los padres? No se hallaron por ningún la’o. También, al bañarme en el aire libre bajo la luz de la luna, y las benditas letrinas.

“Me sentía más integrado en la cultura dominicana cuando…”: He tenido la suerte de tener una increíble familia dominicana, así que cada vez que estoy con ellos me siento integrado no solamente en la cultura, sino en la familia. También, cuando empecé a salir con una capitaleña, y en la tercera cita de la nada ella viene y me dice ¡Pero te hemos dañado! ¡Sé un gringo normal!

La experiencia más chistosa que te ocurrió en país: hay muchísimas, pero les quiero echar un cuento de algo que me ocurrió una tarde cuando estaba saliendo de la capital. Estaba montado en la guagua caliente, y el cobrador estaba quillado porque era un domingo, y no había ninguna gente en la calle. Después de esperar un rato en cada parada fija, tanto el cobrador como el chofer se dieron por vencidos y arrancamos para San Cristóbal. De buenas a primeras, justo antes de salir de la cuidad, el chofer vira a la derecha, cruzando tres carriles de tráfico para coger una callejuela pequeña al lado derecho de la carretera. Por poco el cambio de dirección tira al cobrador por fuera de la puerta de la guagua, y él se mantiene montado solo por una sola mano agarrada a la barra de la puerta. Momentos después, cuando la guagua vira a la derecha de nuevo para subir otra callejuela, el cobrador se ve obligado a saltar de la guagua para esquivar un árbol plantado en la esquina, y en un dos por tres él se sube de nuevo, haciendo un esprint para alcanzar la guagua, que no ha desacelerada para nada. Cogimos otra callejuela, y salimos a la carretera de nuevo, algunas cinco cuadras más atrás de donde hicimos el desvío. Ahí, en la esquina de donde entramos en la carretera de nuevo, hay veintipico personas regresando de una boda en Santo Domingo, toditos en rumbo para San Cristóbal. Mientras los pasajeros se desfilan en la guagua, el cobrador se brinca por encima de la muchedumbre de gente para llegar al chofer donde él está sentado. Mientras tanto, se abrazan en el asiento de la guagua y se gritan “¡De lo mío! ¡¡¡DE LO MIO!!!

La enfermedad más memorable: No me enfermé mucho, gracias a Dios. Sin embargo, érase una vez cuando di el discurso de juramentación con el chikungunya full.

La costumbre más dominicana que llevarás a los Estados Unidos cuando regreses: Tendré que dejar de describir personas por su apariencia física. Hace un año y pico estaba en una guagua durante vacaciones en Monte Cristi y me horrorice a mí mismo cuando para ayudar a una señora que buscaba un asiento le indique el único asiento todavía disponible en la guagua, diciendo, “Ve, hay uno por ahí, al lado de la morena gorda.” No quiero imaginar cómo esta línea hubiera sido interpretado en los Estados Unidos: “There’s one over there, next to the fat black woman.”

Lugar más bello: Hay tantos. Me encanta mi comunidad, pero hay una comunidad tres kilómetros más para allá en la misma carretera donde queda la mía que es bellísima. Es en un valle rodeado por montañas, y el campo está situado en la confluencia de dos ríos. Pero este es un país bello. No soy muy playero, así que cuando estaba fuera de mi comunidad pasé la mayoría de mi tiempo en las montañas del Cibao y visitando otros voluntarios en sus comunidades.

La manera más creativa que pasaste el tiempo en tu comunidad: No maten el tiempo que ustedes tienen aquí, nuestro tiempo aquí es demasiado precioso y corto para la experiencia única que este trabajo nos da. Estos dos años se les van a pasar volando, créanme. Estudié español a través de libros de gramática, música, y libros escritos en español, planifique tanto para proyectos comunitarios como para “mis próximos pasos” después de mi voluntariado, hice ejercicio, e invente razones para hacer coro con dominicanos de mi edad en mi comunidad.

Palabra inventada: “uh oh, pero tu ta’ amanzana’a.” ¿Saben cómo hay ese dicho dominicano de ser “aplatanado?” Pues, cuando alguien está “amanzana’a”, eso quiere decir que la persona dominicana se porta como si fuera estadounidense. Si ustedes no lo entienden, piensen en la fruta más asociada con los Estados Unidos y le van a llegar.

¿Cómo has cambiado durante tu servicio?: Wao. No sé por dónde empezar. Antes, tuve mucha dificultad en aceptar contratiempos o cambios de plan. Ahora, me dejo llevar según surjan las cosas. Soy más flexible, más paciente, y entre todo, más colaborativo. Digo menos palabras de cortesía ahora. Doy más. Creo ahora, más que nunca, que el mundo sería un mejor lugar si las personas viajarían mas, y si lo harían con una mente y corazón abierto. Soy más reservado en ingles de lo que era antes, y más extrovertido en español. Ahora estoy seguro que quiero casarme y tener una familia. Finalmente, ya no creo en la idealización estadounidense de un hombre hecho por sí mismo. En esta vida, para echarnos pa’ adelante, nos tenemos que ayudar.

Si tu servicio fuera un libro, ¿cómo se titularía?: Hice 27 entradas en un blog durante mis 27 meses aquí, así que a lo mejor “27 cuentos.”

¿Qué libros leíste que recomendarías a otros voluntarios? ¿Programas de televisión? ¿Podcasts?: Si hubiera leído “Así es como la pierdes” por Junot Díaz más temprano en mi servicio, habría aprendido la jerga y habla callejera mucho más rápido. Si quieres aprender hablar como un dominicano, hazte un favor y lee este libro en español. Además, el libro te hará reflexionar sobre la manera en que te acercas a las relaciones con las personas más importantes en tu vida.

¿De qué estás contento que hayas hecho aquí?: Me alegro que hice amistades verdaderas con personas de mi edad en mi comunidad; mi voluntariado hubiera sido mucho más difícil—y aburrido—sin el apoyo y los relajos de ellos. Al igual con las amistades en mi grupo de voluntarios. Estoy loco por ver lo tanto que van a lograr en sus vidas. Ustedes son realmente increíbles. Me alegro que conocí las comunidades de tantos voluntarios, especialmente los que admiro y respeto. Salí de cada visita una mejor persona después del haber visto las chispas que ustedes están emprendiendo en sus comunidades. Me alegro que tuve tantos “compartires” y fiestas en mi casa con mi coro, mezclado de dominicanos y voluntarios. Los momentos lindos de esas noches serán para siempre algunos de mis mejores recuerdos de mi tiempo aquí en Quisqueya. Más que nada, estoy sumamente feliz que no deje deteriorar la relación con mi familia dominicana cuando me mudé y tuve el chance de alejarme.

¿Qué quisieras haber hecho aquí?: Me siento bien con mi español, pero ojalá fuera mejor. Quisiera haber hecho más trabajo en mis comunidades. Todavía quiero conocer un batey, y nadar por Bahía de las Águilas. Me queda conocer Haití, también. Me gustaría haber aprendido a cocinar mejor.

¿Qué te hará falta de RD en seis meses?: Estaré aquí todavía, pero cuando me vaya, voy a extrañar hablar en español, toda mi gente aquí en esta bendita isla, bailando bachata, lo verde que es Quisqueya, y mucho, mucho más.

¿Que no extrañarás de RD en seis meses?: No me harán falta mujeres que creen que Dios las hizo para hacer oficios, crear y criar niños, y aguantar con la infidelidad. Tampoco echaré de menos los hombres que las hacen creer esta mierda. No extrañaré la falta de cortesía aquí, ni la perspectiva estrecha que muchos tienen acerca de asuntos sociales y políticos. Y definitivamente no extrañaré la lucha que cojo cada vez que necesito lavar.

Que es lo próximo: Un mes de vacaciones en mis queridas montañas de Colorado con mis dos hermanitas y tiempo pasado en Texas con mi familia. Después, un líder para el sector de educación con mi pana Jenna. Nos pusimos finos.

Tus planes para “readjustment allowance”: Quiero vivir a lo grande aquí en Santo Domingo en este año que viene. Quiero bolear a través de México en camino a mi madre tierra, Texas. Quiero visitar mi vieja familia anfitriona en Perú. Quiero andar el Camino de Santiago y conocer mi media naranja que toma la forma de una bella española con el cuerpazo de Shakira. Quiero dejar de siempre estar arrancado. Tantos planes, tan poco cuarto…

¿Tienes consejos para los nuevos voluntarios?: Refiérete a “De que estas contento que hayas hecho aquí.” Además, incluiré que si no saben español, deberían estudiarlo. El simple hecho que vives en un país hispanohablante no quiere decir que lo aprenderás. ¡La práctica hace al maestro! También, alóquense en la pista de baile.

Algo más: Hay tanto que les quiero decir para evitar que lo aprendan por las malas, pero sé que no me escucharán. Ustedes tienen que aprender esta vaina por sí mismos. No hay nadie que pueda andar este camino por ti. Pero les dejo con esto: Pon tu granito de arena, no dejes la cosa ahí. Tú tienes mucho más que contribuir a tu comunidad que un solo granito. Que seas productivo y feliz.

Premio de la revista ‘Gringo Grita’: Most likely to blog about his blog.

 

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Mi casa en San Cristóbal. My house in San Cristobal.

 

My Secret Life in the Campo

 

 

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View from my backyard.

Growing up, my Mom had this mania for the reality show Survivor. I mean, she was obsessed. And when someone gets real excited about something, they typically end up making others excited about it too. And if the Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s reinforced this life lesson from my mother: Enthusiasm is contagious.

Before we knew it, watching Survivor became a family tradition, with all five of us, plus the chocolate Labrador, huddled around the television in the den to watch the latest installment of a team of strangers doing bizarre competitions in exotic locations the world over.
I didn’t know it then, but turns out my two years in a rural mountain community in the Dominican Republic is a bit like Survivor. Except it’s so much better. There’s survival. There’s action. There’s blood and guts (typically involving chickens and around Christmas time, pigs). And there’s so, so much drama.

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My own team of Survivor, and a cast of characters in their own right. In all, we had 33 secret lives here in the Dominican Republic.

 

You see, these people in my little campo know each other. They know each other intimately, in a way that most of us Americans only know one or two people. Fact is, most everyone is related. The most common last name in my community is Alcántara. I haven’t done a survey, but I would venture around 60% of my community has Alcántara as one of their two last names (For the two readers who have never met a Hispanic person before, Latino custom dictates that one is given two last names). This intimate level of familiarity makes for a complex—and interesting—dynamic between my community members.

So, as my two years in my sweet, strange little community come to a close this May, I want to share some of the funny, sad, and outrageous events that happen in my secret life in the campo.

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Like all good stories, let’s start with some action scenes. Six months ago, there was a near lynching in my community. Turns out a muchacho got high on a local herb known as flor de compana, which best as I can figure out is a hallucinogen made from a local plant.  It’s not uncommon for Dominican youth to experiment with this drug—there is even a dembow song about this party plant—but this young man upped the ante when he tried to machete chop one of his neighbors cows to pieces. Luckily, the police intervened and the cow chopper was sent to prison.

Here’s another gory story. When I tried to castrate my cat Porfirio Rubirosa in my nearby pueblo, the local veterinarian quoted me an unfair price. When I asked for a discount, the wizened man leaned over the counter conspiratorially, and whispering between his three teeth informed me he could come to my campo on a day he was not working to perform the surgery for half the price. He promised he would have the anesthesia to put my cat to sleep during the procedure.

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Meet Porfirio Rubirosa: a one cat killing machine. He hunts everything, rats, snakes, a sparrow in mid-flight once, and lizards. Lots of lizards. His Achilles heel? Tarantulas.

And that is how I found myself straddling a fully awake cat on my porch at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning while the toothless vet assured me that “this never happens.” He had been about halfway through the operation when the cat woke up from his first dosage of anesthesia. Horror-struck, and against my protests I watched as he administered another full dosage of anesthesia to my cat before cutting off his second testicle. Porfirio Rubirosa managed to stay awake for the entire surgery, biting both me and the vet several times in the process. When the vet finished the procedure, we released the cat, watched him stand up and take two wobbly steps on my blood-slick porch, and then fall down unconscious for the next twelve hours.

In the end, I paid less than half price for the surgery, and I still have blood stains on my porch.

A lot of my best Peace Corps stories involve my cat. When I first got my Porfirio Rubirosa, I became aware that there is a widespread belief that cats carry a disease that causes infertility in pregnant woman. I investigated this, and it turns out its true. It’s called toxoplasmosis, and it’s just one of the many zoonotic diseases that cats carry. Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction.

Here’s one more cat tale: Ever since I found out that some Dominicans consider cat meat a delicacy, I have been praying for Porfirio Rubirosa.

Now let’s start getting into the gossip on the block. The most recent chisme in my campo involves my 20-year-old good friend who  just married his 15-year-old neighbor. By married, I mean she has moved into the house where her new husband lives with his parents, four siblings, and sick grandmother. When I asked his best friend why he didn’t counsel our friend against getting hitched so early, he said: “But Connor, I did! I told him not to marry the girl that day. I told him to wait until the weekend when he would have more money.

Whomp.

I wish I could tell you this next story was fictionalized. One of my favorite families is currently in the process of scheming how to steal a neighbor’s baby to get a paternity test. This is what happened: There were a few guys messing around with the teenage girl who got pregnant, so the father of the child is in question. The boy from my favorite family is the front-runner because he was with her the longest and is her nearest neighbor, but even he is not certain. If my favorite family is proven right, and their son is not the true father, than he and his family will no longer have to pay child support.  Meanwhile, the family with the newborn is refusing to get a paternity test because a negative test would bring even more shame to the girl as it would effectively admit that the girl was sleeping around with more than one boy at the same time. It bears mentioning that she—like the newlywed of my good friend—is also 15 years old. There hasn’t been a baby stealing attempt yet, but they are currently gaining the trust of the family with monthly money payments to help support the new baby, as well as regular gifts of Pampers and mangoes.

And I haven’t even gotten to the witchcraft stories yet. A few months after I moved out of my host family’s house and into my new house, my landlord came to my house to cut down a banana tree.  After cutting the tree down, I invited him in for a cup of coffee, and as we got to know each other our confianza increased to the point that he began telling me the story of how he and his ex-wife split up. As the story goes, he had been suspecting that she had cast a love spell over him for a long time, and so he solicited the advice of an old friend who happened to be a wizard. The wizard searched my landlord’s house, where he discovered a mysterious bottle of honey in the back of his refrigerator. Upon opening the honey jar, they discovered the key to the spell that the ex-wife had hexed him with: a small stick immersed in the liquid with my landlord’s name written on it. The wizard threw the honey bottle on the ground, shattering the glass bottle and breaking the spell. With that, as my landlord tells me, the hex was lifted and he no longer fell prey to the sweet, sticky sexual temptation that his ex-wife offered.

Here’s my other magic story. When I discovered my next door neighbor—a 40-year-old mother of two—dead on her kitchen floor a year ago, I was initially treated with much suspicion by some of the older members of the community. According to traditional campo culture, the person who finds a dead body is a bringer of bad tiding and capable of harming others.

I should share a dating story as well, because no Survivor series is complete without a romance element.

Shortly after moving into my new house two years ago, I was called from my porch by a girl to go for a nighttime walk. She was walking with six of seven other muchachos my age of varying sexes, so I did not see any harm in accepting the invitation. One of my personal mantras during my Peace Corps service was never turn down an invitation. As we walked, one by one, the mix of guys and girls slowly started to peel off until I was left with this one young woman. When I asked the muchacha where we were going, she responded with a vague “I have to talk to someone.” When we got to the house she was going too I finally understood: the person she wanted to talk too was her ex-husband. He had left her a month or two ago for another woman and she wanted to show him that she had gotten over him by getting with the new gringo.

Yes. I was coerced onto a revenge date by a community member. At least this was not as awkward as when I accidentally went on a date with a boy in rural Colombia. This is a story for another blog post, but I will tell you the date involved a puppy-petting farm and ice cream.

connormandate

Yes, there is photo evidence of this date. But look at that ice cream!

 

But this is not to say that the people of my campo are without scruples. My best friend and project partner is a gallero, or cockfighting enthusiast. He considers himself a purist, and a notch above the other galleros because he has his girlfriend cook every one of his roosters that loses a fight. Truth is, I’ve eaten some of his cocks. When I asked him why the other galleros do not eat their dead gallos, this was his response:

“They give them steroids. You know, like Sammy Sosa.”

secretlifesandygallero

Here, Sandy is pictured tending to his roosters. On the right is the practice ring where they train their gallos. No worries Peace Corps, this is a drug-free facility.

 

But good stuff happens here in my secret life in the campo, too. Two weekends ago 21 Dominican teachers attended a two-day teacher conference in my community that was funded through a grant myself and 5 other volunteers had written. On the last day during the closing reflection activity I listened quietly as a Dominican teacher shared with us how her perception of race and discrimination had changed as a result of the way me and my Peace Corps companions had treated her. She then resolved to be more conscious of the role race plays in her classroom, especially with her often-marginalized Haitian students.

Here’s a short YouTube video of our conference.

 

This, too, happens in my secret life in the campo.

Then this week I go to a funeral of an elderly woman in the community. As I sit with her 45-year old son mentally retarded son as he tells me between sobs “La extraño. En cada cosa hay un recuerdo.” I miss her so much. I am reminded of her in everything I see.  I stare at the dirt on the ground so hard it blurs my vision as I think of my own mom, and the last time I told her I love her.

Hey Mom, I love you.

Sometimes, even serendipitous events happen in the secret life of a campo. Let’s imagine you are me, and a girl you had Spanish class with at Roanoke College decides to apply to Peace Corps, and gets sent to the Dominican Republic after you have been living there for two years. Her mandatory volunteer visit during her first two weeks turns out to be a volunteer who lives close to you, but he gets sick and sends her to you instead. During the weekend you two spend together, she mentions how much she enjoyed reading your blog in the months during her application process. She sees your small graduation celebration of your three high school course facilitators who have taught sexual education and leadership lessons to close to 100 students, and while you are cooking plantains and fried salami with her and your kids you smile and think to yourself: This is closure. The cycle is coming full circle.

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From left: My college classmate Hannah, course facilitator Diana, volunteer visit trainee Denver, me, and course facilitator Maria Luz. Not pictured is course facilitator Yeison.

 

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High school leadership program graduation. That’s my motorcycle helmet in the back row.

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The rock star facilitators.

 

So there you have it. Two wild, drama-filled, unforgettable years’ worth of stories in a blog post. In two months I will be leaving this community to start a new life. And as for my secret life in the campo?

trustfall

Trust Falls in the high school. Here’s hoping the next place I land treats me as good as this place has.

 

I’m going  to miss it like hell.

 

 

 

 

 

Memories: A Musical Note

I keep this blog to help myself remember my journey. I experience, hell, we all experience so many odd, marvelous, and mundane moments every day that unless we make a conscious effort to chart them, they scurry away, tip-toeing out of the party of our crowded minds.

Regardless of content, I believe there is value in every memory recalled, simply because these memories are snapshots of experiences that have colored and influenced our lives. Good or bad, happy or sad, embarrassing or ugly, our lives are comprised of these moments, and our recall of these experiences play no small role in shaping our future choices. When I look at my life from a long-zoom perspective, I am consistently astounded—and often disconcerted—at how many of my past experiences have watermarked my current reality.

This is why I am choosing to write this blog post about music. I am a writer, and will always be able to best express myself through words—written, not spoken—but there is something special and transformational about the way music offers us a medium to our memories.

For example, each time I hear Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train I smile and think about my Dad whooping when he heard this on the radio in his truck, hollering over the guitar riff that this was his college basketball team’s warm-up song.

This, in turn, makes me think of my own college basketball team’s pregame locker room song, and how my palms would get sweaty and the guys would get real quiet when team captain Jordan would put on Kendrick Lamar’s Money Trees. Writing about it now still makes my throat get dry.

Kenny Chesney brings back a flood of Texas childhood memories, and when I hear George Strait I can see my mother dancing in the kitchen, kicking her feet as she swings her hips.

Tubthumping by Chumbawamba draws to mind the epic fort my sisters and I made one summer, and the rough-and-tumble times we had inside that private childhood space.

Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama remind me of Kappa Alpha Order, and warm, boozy memories of boys learning to become men.

Justin Beiber’s Baby reminds me of a first—and last—kiss at 2:00 a.m. outside of a freshman dormitory at Roanoke College. She was an uncommonly pretty girl, and it was the first time I had ever been kissed with snowflakes falling.

When I hear Niña Bonita by Chino y Nacho, or Fruta Prohibida by Dragon y Caballero, I still evoke that first drive from the airport in Peru with my new host family, and the dawning realization as the strange, unfamiliar cadences of speech washed over me that my life was never, ever, going to be same again.

I remember the smolder in my student’s eyes in Cali, Colombia—recently listed by Business Insider as the 9th deadliest city in the world by homicide rates—as he showed me Latinoamérica by Calle 13, and the way the class fell silent when he told me: “Listen to this, and you will understand why I am not ashamed of being Latino.”

Stubborn Love by the Lumineers reminds me of the weekly, two-hour drive I used to take from Denver to Fort Collins, and how intensely happy I was the year I lived in Colorado.

 

All these songs conjure up these parts of me in a way no words or pictures have ever been able to. They make me laugh, cringe, and reflect on how the person I was in those times has changed from the person I am today, and how I am the same.

I want this blog to be a place that helps me capture—albeit imperfectly—as much as possible about who I was and what I went through during my Peace Corps Dominican Republic service. In the spirit of the fragmented nature of memory , here is an unfinished, incomplete list of songs that in some way or another will forever remind me of my time here on this loud little island. These 12 songs span the gamut from salsa, to bachata, to dembow, to romantic, but they all are a trigger for my Peace Corps service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now, because at my heart I am still a writer, and believe in the enduring power of words—when placed correctly—to draw us out of ourselves and tease our souls, I offer these to you:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Two Tramps at Mud Time, Robert Frost

To quote a friend of mine, these two lines kill me every time:

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes

 

 

Have a great month, team. Let’s play for mortal stakes.

 

 

 

How a Short-Term Medical Mission Challenged my Perspective on Development Work

I thought I had it on lock. The whole international development work thing. After all, I was the guy who was doing Peace Corps, who for the last two years had been immersed in the Dominican culture, eating the rice, drinking the rum, speaking the language.

 

Then I met these guys.

constana piccc

View from the road in to Constanza, Dominican Republic.

 

This is International Health Initiative (IHI), the medical mission nonprofit that I just spent the last week translating for in Constanza, a hauntingly beautiful town deep in the heart of the Cibao.

realpic

Barrio Flores, Constanza. This is one of the most underdeveloped areas in Constanza and is one of the communities where IHI is concentrating their efforts.

Truth be told, I mainly agreed to translate for IHI based on those two images above. Constanza is bellismo, there’s no other word for it. I was less than enthused about a week spent in close quarters with other Americans. I love my paisanos, but in a foreign environment spending time with them can be akin to herding cats. I’ve been blessed enough that many friends and family have chosen to take time and money out of their lives to come and visit me, and although every visit has been special in its own right and it’s always wonderful to rekindle old relationships, each trip has left me feeling like my visitors missed the mark. They come from different perspectives and lives, and they did not seem to understand all I was trying to show them.

 

However, the first medical mission I had translated for had been in Constanza over a year ago, and I had fallen hard for the place. And at its base, the trip seemed seemed fairly straightforward. Dominican patients come in, and the American doctors ask the patients a question in English. I translate the question to Spanish for the patient. The patient answers me in Spanish, and I relay the question in English to the doctor. Ibuprofen and vitamins are supplied, if it is a kid they get their teeth treated with fluoride, and everyone goes home happy.

 

Simple enough. So I applied and got approved to go on the trip.

 

Then I met the crew, and I realized just how different of a week I was going to have.

 

You see, this assorted bunch of medical professionals, public health researchers, and college and graduate students from Kansas City and Boston did not just want to have medical screenings and perform surgeries, although they did do those too. About 200 health screenings and 30 surgeries, to be exact.

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The OR where the surgical team worked. The windows are tinted red to block out sunlight, which lends an otherworldly aspect to the mountains surrounding the clinic.

They also wanted to play baseball, and eat dinner with nuns, and focus in on preventative treatment, and take a holistic approach to the public health and education of a community to see if they could affect positive change. They wanted to talk to the local government, and get the province’s Rotary Club involved to build area support. They talked sustainability and I, and then the Constanza community, started to pay attention.

 

IHI had solicited two Peace Corps volunteers to live in two different communities that they wanted to focus their efforts in, and for a week they worked with the new volunteers, employing the use of modern mapping technology, public health and social policy experts, and an ingenious, branching logic, tablet-based household survey to help these two volunteers map their communities and assess their needs in a way no Peace Corps volunteer has probably ever done. By the end of the week over 85 household surveys had been recorded through this intuitive technology, complete with GPS coordinates and photos of the front of each house.

cammy and i

Cammy and I are best friends, but the connection between Scott and Ellis is undeniable.

And all this from some gringos fresh off the plane.

 

By the way, if you are a new Peace Corps volunteer and still need to make your community, needs-based assessment map, download My Maps from Google and you can create a customized map of where you live. After being out of the technology loop for close to two years, this was nothing short of amazing for me.

 

Don’t get me wrong, IHI is a fledgling organization and they still have growing pains ahead of them. But their genuine passion for the Dominican people, curiosity to learn, and thoughtful approach to healthcare inspired me, and ultimately challenged my perspective on development work and the way I have been approaching my work here. One of IHI’s big goals is to center their work on evidence-based research, so in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the importance of empirical data here are some qualitative observations of how this team impressed me.

  • The mission director who agonized over every text and email he sent to his Dominican counterparts, and who rehearsed every big meeting with me and other volunteers to make sure his message would be delivered in a culturally sensitive way.
  • The PhD-holding clinical researcher who continually deferred to the Peace Corps volunteer whose community he was in because he recognized the volunteer had a better understanding of the community than he did.
  • The two new Constanza Peace Corps volunteers who were not exactly fresh off the plane ,but whose optimism and excitement in their new communities made me nostalgic for my first days in Peace Corps. There is something beautiful in the struggle to create a good life in a new place, and I had forgotten that.
  • The two Kansas City surgical nurses whose thoughtfulness made me and the other volunteers feel at home in the OR, and who unconsciously emulated the open-hearted willingness of the Dominican people to invite people into their lives.
  • The MPH graduate student from Boston University who stayed up until 2 a.m. every night to make sure her water samples tested accurately, while also sampling some of the local liquid herself. Combining work and play. Now that is Dominican.
  • The breakneck enthusiasm and boundless curiosity of the clinical research analyst from Kansas City. David, if you ever get tired of chasing the medical school dream, you will make a great development worker.
  • The plastic surgeon who shared beers with Dominican doctors and nurses after a 12-hour work day where he had operated on  13 patients, because, hey, hanging out with people is important here.
  • The plastic surgeon’s son who directed the operative side of the medical mission, and whose charisma and genuine compassion for others allowed him to successfully carry out a logistically complex mission with a very diverse group of people in a foreign settings. After a week spent watching him tackle problems and interact with people, I know I am leaving a better leader.
  • The retired doctor who kept interrupting my attempts to rush through household surveys to ask follow-up questions about the family I was interviewing. I was trying to meet our quota for households surveyed; he was trying to meet the people he was there to serve.
  • The premed student from Harvard who spent the entire week asking: How can I be most useful to you? How many of us Peace Corps volunteers have forgotten to ask that question in our service?

 

I now realize I have been here for so long that I simply do not see much of what I used too. On one of my household surveys I literally had to step over the body of a disabled woman on the threshold to enter the house, and when I interviewed her father he said dispassionately: llevala si quieres. Take her if you want.  It wasn’t until later on that night that I realized how little the experience had registered for me. The once outrageous had become normal.

 

Today I was looking back through one of my first blog posts here in country, and this is how I ended one of my entries.

“‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.’

This quote is from Bob Pierce, the founder of the international aid organization World Vision. Upon reading this quote, I made a conscious effort to include this sentence in my morning prayer, thinking it was a neat turn of phrase…

But when I met this woman and got to know her story I felt my heart stretching, cracking, breaking. More than anything, Fiol’s story made me angry, and as I type this I am still filled with frustration for her circumstances. She deserves more. She deserves a better job, better healthcare, and a less physically demanding lifestyle. Her children deserve more too. They deserve better access to basic services, educational environments where they aren’t pinched or verbally humiliated if they don’t know the right answer, and toys that aren’t old bottle caps or chipped machete blades.

       In two years, I know I might look back at this blog post and wonder at my naiveté, and smile to think that a story like Fiol’s would affect me. But I hope not. I hope I’m still as pissed off then as I am today.  Because if I’m not, it will mean I’ve lost something far more valuable.”

Turns out, before last week I had indeed lost a good portion of that empathy, of that compassion. To be honest, it’s still not all there- I am undeniably less sensitive than I used to be.

 

But one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to refocus myself on that quote above, and to retrain myself to let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

 

Not many people know this, but I have a tattoo on my back that says Die Living. It is inspired by the Jimmy Buffet song “Growing Older But Not Up.” My uncle used to listen to it often on his sailboat when I would go out to Colorado to visit him, and my adolescent brain quickly became fixated on the main chorus on the song:

“I would rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”

-Jimmy Buffet

When I got the tattoo my freshman year of college I interpreted this as a carpe diem, seize the moment, “let’s make an adventure of this life,” type of tagline, but I am starting to realize this message can be interpreted in a far more poignant, spiritual way. I am tired of living a dead, numb life. Asi que, nuevo año, vida nueva.

kids runin

I’m trying to live my last few months in my  community with my eyes and my heart wide open, the way I know God wants me to live. Wherever you are, I hope you join me.

 

 

 

 

PS- I apologize for the several month gap in my posts, but life has been busy! I will catch up soon, Scout’s honor.  Until next time, saludos desde el Caribe, mi gente.

constanza 2

 

 

 

 

 

A Family History

For a while now, I have wanted to write a post on this history of this place. No. Don’t stop reading just yet. This is a personal history, and an interesting one, told by the best storyteller in whole province of San Cristóbal .

Tercia, nunca te voy a poder agradecer lo bastante para la diferencia que ha hecho tu presencia en mi vida. Del fondo de mi corazon, gracias.

This is Tercia, my host mother here in the Dominican Republic, and the woman who shows me daily the simplicity and beauty of love in its most guileless, ordinary form. But of course, that is what makes this love so extraordinary. In my nearly two years here, she has counseled me, cared for me, cooked for me, made me laugh, comforted me, and loved me in a way few people have ever done in my life. Truthfully, I’ve grown closer to her than my biological grandparents, and it’s not hard to see why: I’ve probably spent more time with her during these last two years than I have with my American grandparents in the course of 24 years.

So this is her history, or what I know of it based off of the countless stories and anecdotes I’ve heard in her kitchen or on her porch over the last two years. This is her story, in her voice, and I hope I can scratch the surface of doing it justice.

 

 

I was born on January 25th at 10 a.m. in the morning in 1944 in the house that Rosa lives in. You know Rosa, right? She is one of my hijos de crianza, or adopted children. I have eight including you, plus six biological ones, if you count the one that died at childbirth. I always do. It took me a long time to get over losing him. Truthfully, I’m not sure if I ever did. The doctor said I suffered from clinical depression for a long time afterwards. All I know is that it was a very sad time in my life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Be patient with me, I tend to do that.

I was born in Rosa’s house, and grew up right here in our little community of San Francisco. Of course, it was much different back then, and didn’t have so many houses as it does now. In fact, the nearest neighbor to our house was Lupina. Connor, you know Lupina! I sent you to bring her avocados one time.

It was a full house, Rosa’s, that is. I was the oldest, and a girl, so I left school in the 4th grade to help take care of the family. In those days girls didn’t go to school for every long, and besides, I had already learned how to read and write.

Around the time that I left school, a girl from town came to live in our house. She was pretty, but very shy, and I don’t remember her too well. All I knew then was that she spoke a little different from us, and that we weren’t supposed to talk about her with the neighbors. It was only when I was much older that I learned she was the daughter of an American and Mexican couple who worked in the government, and who had sent her to live with us to hide her from Rafael Trujillo, El Benefactor, the man who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961.

Trujillo always liked pretty girls, and when he wanted something, he nearly always got it. In fact, in Daza—you went there once, it’s the community down the hill past the high school where you teach classes, Trujillo had a girl there. He didn’t stay with her long, but he did build her mother a new wood house with wood floors, and he even gave the girl a husband. They are still together, too.

Where were we? Yes, my childhood. Since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed about Mexico, and I think that pretty, shy, Mexican American girl is the reason why. I also used to love horses, and whenever I was done with my chores I would go with my sister, Maria de Carmen, and my older cousin Fautina on long rides up the mountains. Fautina was much older than us, and always rode on the front of the horse. The road wasn’t like what it is today, and so often we would get back close to nighttime. We were never allowed to take the horse to town, though. To go to town, we always walked—all 11 kilometers of it. If we were lucky, sometimes we got rides in trucks from Trujillo’s nearby farms. In those days, all of the countryside of San Cristóbal belonged to Trujillo, and his big house—the famous Mahogany House, which would later be known as the place where he took his young girls—overlooked all of it on a high bluff on the banks of the Nigua River. Connor, he even had a cow farm in Boruga where you play basketball, and workers would bring him fresh milk daily from his home province to the capital.

I saw Trujillo twice in my life, and both times it was while walking to town. He was alone both times, and mounted on his horse. Both times, my cousins and I dropped our groceries and yelled “¡Que viva Trujillo!” just like our teachers made us do every morning when we raised the flag at school. He was easy to recognize, after all. Every classroom and house in the country was obligated to have a framed picture of The Benefactor. I have still mine, look.

Era_de_Trujillo_sign

In those days, even the Nigua River looked different. She was wide, and always filled with clear, deep water. It was only after the paleros, or men with shovels, came in and started extracting sand that she dried up. Being a palero, that’s the hardest job around here. That’s why only the most poor folks do it. During the rainy season in the winter the Nigua would sometimes be so full her banks would run over and the bridge would flood, and we wouldn’t be able to get to town until after Christmas. There was so much water that Trujillo made his workers build a separate canal to water his cows straight from La Toma, “The Headwaters,” the natural freshwater fountain that used to be one of the river’s tributaries.

I guess today that would seem silly, no? To deface one of our country’s historical landmarks to water the king’s cows.

But! I’ve never told you about the history of La Toma, have I? I know you go swimming there with your friends often, but I’ve never told you its history. Well. When Christopher Columbus landed on the north coast of the island in 1492, he and his men walked all of the way across this country until they came to La Toma, and Columbus liked the natural pools and fountains so much that he decided to stay right here and build the first city of the Americas. Of course, his brother Bartholomew came in later and ended up making Santo Domingo the first city because the Ozama River offered a better port for Spanish slave ships. But right here in our own backyard was where Columbus wanted to build the first Spanish city, and that’s why our province is named San Cristóbal— Saint Christopher.

But there I go again. My mother always said I was more easily distracted than a night butterfly, what you Americans call moths. When I was 15, my mother got every sick, and I became the head of the house. We never knew what had made her so sick, but it made her very weak for the rest of her life. It was during this year that I met Lao.

My uncle Rudolfo had broken his leg in an accident with his horse, and was hospitalized in the Pablo Piña, the public hospital of San Cristóbal. For the two months that he recovered in the hospital, my sister Maria de Carmen and I went periodically to visit him and bring him food, walking the 11 kilometers from San Francisco. It was during one of these visits that a tall young moreno, or dark-skinned Dominican, came up to me when I was putting on my makeup outside the hospital after the long walk from San Francisco:

¡No te maquilles! Porque como quiera eres linda.” Don’t put on makeup, because no matter what you are pretty.

To this day Lao still says it was that first piropo, that first pick-up line, which made me fall in love with him. Hardly! Here in the Dominican Republic girls expect piropos every time they leave their house, and unless it’s a creative one we don’t pay them any mind. Besides, every time he teases me about that I remind him that it took me four visits for him to work up the courage to approach me.

What happened was this. At that time Lao had just gotten out of the navy, and was working at the armería, the state-sponsored armony. But many of his friends worked at the hospital, and he would often spend his lunch hour there. During one of these lunch hours he saw me arrive with my older brother, and after we left he walked straight up to my uncle Rudolfo and said: “That’s a nice-looking couple that just visited you!” To which my uncle responded, “Aren’t they! But they are brother and sister, not a couple.” This of course is exactly what Lao wanted to hear.

So that was our first meeting, in 1959, when I was 15 and Lao was 19. He started to visit me, and we fell in love. We still are. He would visit me often, and when he visited he would always bring me something: a small chocolate, or a pineapple that he bought in town. He was so funny, Lao. After walking the 11 kilometers from town, he would always stop in at the colmado, or general store near my house, to sit and stop sweating before he visited me. Three years later when I turned 18, we married and moved to the town. We stayed there for 8 years while Lao worked at the armory, although after Trujillo’s death in 1961 the armory started making bed frames instead of ammunition.

But I am a simple woman, and I missed San Francisco and the quiet I found there. In 1970 we moved back, and with a few friends Lao build a small wooden house right here. He left his job in the armory and started working in a nearby gravel community 6 kilometers away, where he eventually became promoted to shift supervisor and stayed there 30 years until he received his pension. It was only in 1996 that we tore it down and build this big concrete house instead. And good thing we rebuilt too! After I started the cake business in 2000 we needed the extra kitchen space.

The cake business. I tell you, I never thought making cakes in my kitchen would take off the way it did. After my best friend Lina and I helped organize the Mother’s Club to build the community center in the mid-1980s INFOTEC, the government technical training program, started offering free classes periodically in San Francisco. One of these classes was a cake-making course, and I took it with a small group of other women, mostly younger college students, in early 2000.

After the class ended, I was the only woman who bought the cake equipment to keep going. The equipment was expensive, but I saw a need in the community and thought we had a chance. You see, before we started this business people who wanted cakes had to go all the way to the town to buy cakes, and they were very costly. Ibelise, my youngest daughter, helped me take out the loan to buy the equipment. She has always been the business-minded one of the family. Did you know she bought her storefront in the town municipality from money she saved by selling homemade ice-cream at the high school? She sold each ice-cream for 5 pesos, and bought the storefront where the hair salon and cake stand is for 70,000 pesos. With the money she’s made from those two businesses, plus the rent that she charges the family who lives on the top floor, she put her two sons through college, and you know how well they are doing now. For his first year open, Mendy’s dentistry business is doing very well and did you hear! Crepin just got promoted to shift supervisor where he works as an electrical engineer at the port factory in the free trade zone of Haina, close to the capital.

Of course, the cake business can be hard, and some of our equipment is broken which makes it harder. Because the cake mixer draws so much electricity our little battery can’t support it, and so when the electricity has its daily outage we have to mix the batter by hand. Of course, we try to time our work around the electricity schedule, but the schedule is constantly changing.

We work three to seven days a week, depending on the time of year it is. On Fridays and Saturdays, which is when most cakes need to be picked up, we wake up at 3 a.m. to start working. Ibelise asked me once if I ever felt resentful that I now do so much more work than Lao and this is what I told her: I can still remember the days when Lao would get back from working in the gravel quarry at 6 p.m. after walking an hour home, and then work on the conuco, or family plot, until it was too dark to see the green pea plants, and then wake up 2 a.m. to walk to work again for the early shift. Lao has worked hard, and deserves his rest. His health isn’t as good as it used to be anymore, either. And he does help, in his own way. He cuts the cake molds out of spare cardboard each morning, and every evening after I finish working he massages my sore feet on the porch. He still kisses me on the lips, too. I like that.

Since coming back to San Francisco in 1970, I’ve never really left, except for the odd trip to see the doctor in the capital. I have vertigo, you see, so the dizziness makes it hard for me to travel. But I’m happy here. I’ve raised 13 children, 5 of which are my own. They have all grown up to be fine people, and I’m proud of them. I do wish sometimes that Roberto would call me more, but international calls from New Jersey are expensive, and I heard his truck driving business isn’t doing so well anymore.

When I look back on my life, I feel happy. I’ve been very blessed, Connor. It makes me feel good to know that I can give so much to the community. And they give me a lot, too. Most days we receive a few presents from the neighbors, whether it’s a few pounds of pumpkin or a small sack of lemons from one of the nearby farms.

Last month the mayor even gave Lao and I a plaque for being the “most exemplary married couple” in the municipality. I liked the recognition, but I didn’t like having to go to town and having to take so many pictures. I’ve never liked politics, you know. But in town, something interesting happened, Connor. Everybody kept asking us how Lao and I had managed to stay married for so long, 53 years in all. I had never really thought about it, so I didn’t know what to say.

In the end, I just told them: when I was a little girl, when things broke we fixed them.

006

 

 

When Tercia told me that last line, my heart stretched with the simple truth in her statement. I’m 24, and have not had many relationships. But all of my relationships have ended for that very reason, because something broke. And if I am being really honest with myself, it has usually been my fault.

Tercia, her whole hardworking, simple, extraordinary family and their story have taught me so much. I am being honest when I write that this account I’ve penned doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of their story, but I am inspired and humbled by them daily, and I hope you, too, felt something when you read this.

In short, I guess we can whittle this story, this family history, down to a few simple truths:

  • It’s hard to imagine the oppressive, omniscient effect Trujillo had on the psyche of Dominicans who grew up under his regime.
  • Girls who know how to read and write, and who believe in themselves, have the power to change generations.
  • These same girls, when supported and respected by men, can achieve even more.
  • If you are going to love, love hard, and don’t waste time worrying about who is putting in more.
  • Likewise, if you take sand out of the river, the river goes away.
  • Fortune favors the bold.

And the last lesson, which for me is the most hard-hitting:

If something breaks, fix it.

 

Video Blog: 18 videos in 18 months

18 months. ¡Diache! Hard to believe I’ve been here this long. Here are 18 Peace Corps videos. Some I’ve taken, others are clips from friends and fellow volunteers, and I won’t lie: there are a few shameless YouTube steals. For videos shot by me, I apologize in advance for the substandard quality: they were filmed using my Mom’s Iphone 3 hand-me-down that she gave me when she came and visited this past summer. And for the volunteers who (knowingly or unknowingly) contributed, thank you so much! Your passion and talent makes this post come alive.

¡Disfruta!

This video was sent to me by fellow volunteer and good friend Sophia.  Considering the song choice (“Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift), it’s not surprisingly that Sophia is from the South in the United States and also here in the Dominican Republic. She is the one playing the guitar in her sleepwear.

I shot this on a guagua, or public bus, on the way to the San Juan province in the South. The bachatero crooning in the background is Romeo Santos, the country’s most popular music artist.

Meet Jenna, another friend and volunteer that lives in the Cibao. This is her second site, and her first year, in four minutes.

As part of Pre-Service Training, new volunteers spend three days with active volunteers in the field during their first two weeks in country. Here, my trainee visit RJ throws it down with the facilitator of a Saturday Morning Story Time I used to do with my kids.

Playing off the formerly popular Reality Show “Cribs,” ex-volunteer Ryan shows us around his Peace Corps home.

This is my decidedly more amateur attempt at “Cribs” as I show where I’ve been living for the past year and a half.

Another short, but cool video from Ryan: “What I wish Americans knew about the Dominican Republic.”

This might be my favorite video, sent to me by my good friend PCV Casey. Here, his host sister methodically stabs a piece of cardboard with a knife.

Another great video from Casey, a two minute clip showing Haitian Gaga, a traditional Carnaval dance and activity.

A toddler in Casey’s community plays with a goma, or tire. Most Dominican boys between the ages of four and ten have one of these homemade toys.

This is from North Coast volunteer Cindy. It’s a really cute video montage of her birthday and some of her community members.

PCV Diana shows us a short clip of a man using a pilón. These are used to grind grain, mash up garlic and víveres, and for Peace Corps volunteers, make a highly sought after avocado dip.

PCVs Lisa and Sol show us how important moral support is in Peace Corps, especially when using machetes on tarantulas in the home.

I shot this video on a community beach trip. I picked it partially because we were on the roof of one of ex-dictator Trujillo’s abandoned mansions with amazing beach views, but mainly because it showcases my parenting skills I’ve picked up here in country.

This was an old one I found off YouTube from a former volunteer named Timothy, but it’s only a few seconds long and brings back some fond memories of my favorite viral video craze: The Harlem Shake.

A typical view in my community. This was taken during an evening run after an afternoon thunderstorm.

In this video an unnamed former Peace Corps volunteers shows us a cock fight in her community. This is a common cultural practice—and men take the raising and training of their roosters very seriously. Roosters fight for ten minutes or until killed. Losers leave with wallets empty, pride damaged, and supper in hand.

This one is hilarious. PCV Maria shows us how to teach kids to make “constructive use” of their free time. Their activity? Cleaning her yard. If you look closely you can actually see the beads of sweat on one of the kids. (Disclaimer: Maria was forced to share this video under duress).

Sometimes I feel like it’s so hard to share what I see and feel here. Hopefully some of these videos helped you experience some of the Dominican Republic in a way that my writing can’t.

And now, just for fun, my favorite motivational video that got me through all-nighters in college and two-a-day basketball practices the day after.

Enjoy your month, everyone. Do something special.

Peace Corps: A Study on Loneliness

A house in my community at night.

A house in my community at night.

I’m happy here. Well, most of the time. I have hilarious, intelligent friends, a beautiful girlfriend who I care about deeply, and a supportive and loving Dominican and American family. I believe in the ideals of the organization I choose to work for, even though I think the reality of my work often falls far short. I’m happy here.

Really.

But for all the gushy blog posts and chirpy phone calls and Instagram updates (“heart” me at cjtoomey1), there’s another side to Peace Corps, a side where loneliness comes to visit, and sometimes, hang his hat and stay.

For me, it’s worse at night—especially when there is no electricity. When I’m alone at night, I want nothing more than for the luz to come. Luz. That’s what they call electricity here: light.

I want every corner of my house lit up. I want it to be bright as day, showing in stark, fluorescent detail all the books and bottles and gadgets I have. Yes, I have flashlights and oil lamps for the nights when there is no luz, and no, they are not the same. I’ve discovered flashlights and oil lamps are for being with people, for softening the hard and disagreeable in them—and me—and drawing us closer, huddled together for warmth in the humid Caribbean night.

No. Luz is for being alone, when no one else is around to light you up.

You don’t want to be alone when the luz goes out. When the light goes, the mosquitos come, thriving and building until they compete for space with your thoughts, drowning you out and pushing you aside, until at last you are forced into your mosquito net for asylum. For the last year and a half, I received around 10-15 mosquito bites daily.

Here are my “tells,” or signs that let me know when loneliness is on his way:

  • Taking a really long time to complete simple tasks.
  • Struggling to find order.
  • WhatsApping voice notes to people for no other reason than to hear the sound of my own voice.
  • Low energy.
  • Forgetting to eat.
  • Thinking of how beautiful autumn must be in southwestern Virginia and Colorado right now.
  • This is the worst: feeling angry all the time.

Now, here are the best ways I’ve found to prod at loneliness, to see if he’ll put his hat on and go visit somewhere—or someone—else for a while:

  • Cold water from my bucket shower.
  • The strong expresso coffee I’ve become addicted too.
  • Going over to one of my friends’ houses, or inviting them to mine.
  • Praying
  • Yoga
  • Working out.
  • Dancing with someone.

Loneliness hurts, but it serves a function, too. Like stress, which can be harnessed to get more work done and perform better, loneliness pushes me out to explore the world and to try to make those human connections that I so desperately need to be me (But what IS me? That concept is so fluid, nowadays). I’ve learned that in my search for human connections Dominicans get preferential treatment. It’s like my own personal challenge, my way of proving to myself that I can do this, I can assimilate wholly into another society. I don’t mean too, but I often end up pushing other volunteers away sometimes in this mission to integrate. It just feels like cheating sometimes to hang out with the only other 150 people on the island that speak English and come from the same country I do, and are therefore somehow more homogeneous as a result (Disclaimer: Peace Corps volunteers are the most diverse group of Americans I’ve ever been around, so even with this silly competition I’m lying to myself.)

Often I fail; often the connections I do make are flimsy, insubstantial, and frail. Often they are based on the wrong things. But I keep trying. Truthfully, I know of no other way.

I love my life here. I really do. I love all the friends and family that have grown up around me. But I find that for as often as I am continually amazed at the ability of people from different backgrounds, cultures, and languages to connect, there’s still a gap with the way I feel around them and the way I feel when I’m around my family or close friends back in the States.

I don’t know if its language, value systems, culture, or a combination of the three, but I haven’t been able to completely bridge this gap yet. I’ve gotten very, very close with some community friends and family members, but I know I’m missing something.

I’m hoping for change. I have eight months left, after all.

In the meantime, here is what I’ve been doing to stay busy, and fill this gap of loneliness in my heart.

We finished up the USAID grant we opened in early May. With a little over $2,000 dollars and lots of community contribution, we were able to build 15 bookcases for classroom libraries, and and buy 400 children's books. In this photo we just finished a teacher workshop on best practices for using the books in the school.

We finished up the USAID grant we opened in early May. With a little over $2,000 dollars and lots of community contribution, we were able to build 15 bookcases for classroom libraries, and and buy 400 children’s books. In this photo we just finished a teacher workshop on best practices for using the books in the school.

With leftover money from the USAID grant, personal contributions from fellow volunteer Andy and I, and a majority contribution from my affiliated NGO, Centro Dominicano para la Paz, we hosted a daylong teacher workshop with eight basic schools from our local district, including the three schools in my community. With the possible exception of my Somos Familia male parenting group, this was the most rewarding project I’ve done so far.

Mientras más diversión haya, más aprendizaje habrá.  The more fun you have, the more you learn

Mientras más diversión haya, más aprendizaje habrá. The more fun you have, the more you learn.

Here, participants plan work on ways of involving parents in their individual schools.

Here, participants plan work on ways of involving parents in their individual schools.

Sandi, our killer facilitator for the workshop. Sandi is also the head teacher for a new programa de tutoria, or tutoring program, that CEDOPAZ is sponsoring in the community.

Sandi, our killer facilitator for the workshop. Sandi is also the head teacher for a new programa de tutoria, or tutoring program, that CEDOPAZ is sponsoring in the El Ramon community.

No activity is complete without a silly photo. Andy and I are bottom center.

No activity is complete without a silly photo. Sandi, Andy and I are bottom center.

With the start of school, my time has also been consumed by the start of several courses that I’m facilitating with different teachers in the area.

The dream team of DPV in the high school. From left, fellow volunteer Mattie, facilitator Yeison, facilitator Maria Luz, gym coach Jose Luis, facilitator Diana, and me.

The dream team of DPV in the high school. From left, fellow volunteer Mattie, facilitator Yeison, facilitator Maria Luz, gym coach Jose Luis, facilitator Diana, and me. Mattie and I are also facilitating a Brigada Verde, or environmental awareness course, with the art teacher in the high school. 

Another DPV course in the local basic school of San Francisco. Here, Morena uses a blow-up ball from the district workshop to engage her students in the lesson.

Another DPV course in the local basic school of San Francisco. Here, Morena uses a beach ball from the district workshop to engage her students in the lesson.

In the basic school of El Ramon, we are doing a reading comprehension and critical thinking course with the 8th graders with chapter books bought from the USAID grant. Here, Rodrigo acts out an alternative scene to Alice in Wonderland.

In the basic school of El Ramon, we are doing a reading comprehension and critical thinking course with the 8th graders with chapter books bought from the USAID grant. Here, Rodrigo acts out an alternative scene to Alice in Wonderland.

And this past week, Mattie and I did our first ever leadership workshop in the high school! After spending so much time working on the Peace Corps leadership manual—y falta, ¡todavia!— it was rewarding to see the sessions put into action.

During the final moments of the leadership workshop this girl took us all by surprise by leaping up and ripping one of our posters to shreds. We had just finished an activity where we destroy the "dream houses" they had drawn to show how quickly bad decisions can change your reputation or ruin your life goals, and she wanted revenge!

During the final moments of the leadership workshop this girl took us all by surprise by leaping up and ripping one of our posters to shreds. We had just finished an activity where we destroy the “dream houses” they had drawn to show how quickly bad decisions can change your reputation or ruin your life goals, and she wanted revenge!

Here are some other pictures from the last two months.

The famous swing on top of  Montaña Redonda in Miches.

The famous swing on top of Montaña Redonda in Miches.

Haircut in a Dominican barbershop.

Haircut in a Dominican barbershop.

Trip to the capital to hang out with family members of these cool cats from my community.

Dando la para. Literally translated: giving fear. A more interpretative translation: looking good. This was from a trip to the capital to hang out with family members of these cool cats from my community.

Why yes, gringo, the coolest place to hang out in this country is obviously the nearest mall. The scary thing? At this point I look forward to it.

Why yes, gringo, the coolest place to hang out in this country is obviously the nearest mall. The scary thing? At this point I look forward to it.

Standing room only on the bus (pickup truck) on the way to school. I waited an hour to catch this coveted ride.

Standing room only on the bus (pickup truck) on the way to school. I waited an hour to catch this coveted ride.

A community beach trip. Here, we — along with 7-8 other people I convinced to tag alone— explore an abandoned mansion of ex-dictator Trujillo by Navajo Beach in Dominican Republic.

A community beach trip. Here, we — along with 7-8 other people I convinced to tag alone— explore an abandoned mansion of ex-dictator Trujillo by Navajo Beach in Dominican Republic.

View from the guagua heading south.

View from the guagua heading south.

Lisa and I at the despedida, or going away party, of volunteers in the San Juan province in the South.

Lisa and I at the despedida, or going-away party, of volunteers in the San Juan province in the South.

While I wait, and try to bridge these gaps, I find solace in this excerpt from Paulo Coelho’s novel Once Minutos.

“Los encuentros más importantes ya han sido planeados por las almas antes incluso de que los cuerpos se hayan visto.

Generalmente estos encuentros suceden cuando llegamos a un límite, cuando necesitamos morir y renacer emocionalmente. Los encuentros nos esperan, pero la mayoría de las veces evitamos que sucedan. Sin embargo, si estamos desesperados, si ya no tenemos nada que perder, o si estamos muy entusiasmados con la vida, entonces lo desconocido se manifiesta, y nuestro universo cambia de rumbo.”

—Paoelo Coehlo, Once Minutos

Here’s my English translation:

“The most important meetings have been foreseen by our souls even before our bodies have seen each other.
Generally speaking, these meetings occur when we reach a limit, when we need to die and be reborn emotionally. These meetings are waiting for us, but more often than not, we avoid them at all costs. If we are desperate, though, if we have nothing to lose, or if we are full of enthusiasm for life, then the unknown reveals itself, and our universe changes direction.”

—Paoelo Coehlo, Eleven Minutes

This is a big, grand world we live in. The God who created it must be equally big and grand, and I live in the hope that He (or She, because who says the Being is masculine?) will guide me as I go soul-searching. May He (or She) guide you too.

Work Hard, Play Hard(er)

As promised, here is a more nuts-and-bolts-based version of what I’ve been up to.

In May, I brought 2 men from my community to a Somos Familia conference, where for 3 days we learned how to facilitate parent groups in our communities. Meeting topics cover family topics such as improved communication, positive discipline, conflict resolution, and mental, sexual, and physical health, as well as other family planning and parenting tools. Since the May conference, my facilitadores have started one group each, one with the local agriculture association, and the other with the evangelical church. The facilitator for the evangelical church is really strong, so I typically let him take care of his group and participate as an observer, but I have been much more heavily involved with the Association of Agriculture group. This group is comprised almost exclusively of men over the age of 50, many of which are illiterate, and it’s been a fun challenge finding ways to engage them on family topics.

Somos Familia conference.

Somos Familia conference.

Doing sociodramas with the Asociacion de Agricultura

Doing sociodramas with the Asociacion de Agricultura.

Also in May, Mattie—Youth volunteer and fellow San Cristoballer—and I graduated 61 youths from Deportes para la Vida (DPV) at the local high school we share with Jose Luis, the head gym teacher and all-around great guy. I’ve mentioned DPV in other blog posts, but as a quick recap DPV is the Dominican spin-off of Grassroots Soccer, a famous (at least within international development circles) sexual education course that uses sports-themed activities to reach teenagers. At the graduation, the school administration surprised me with gifts: a coffee mug, and a bag of masita, which is the hardbread I snack on most mornings for breakfast.

I had a graduation photo of  both classes but I lost it!

I had a graduation photo of both classes together with the administration but I lost it!

I also recently finished, along with stellar Youth volunteer Rebecca, the revisions for the Leadership Manual we have been working on, so as soon as final edits and formatting is done we are really excited about sharing this great tool with the wider Peace Corps Dominican Republic community.

Earlier this month, I spent a week helping work a summer camp in Sosua, sponsored by the NYC-based NGO DREAM Project and directed by fellow volunteer and good friend Queenie. It was such a fun week, and I’m so grateful to Queenie for giving me the opportunity to help out. In 5 days, I practiced being silly with icebreakers, convinced small children to do my dishes, gave two workshops (Basic Literacy Instruction and Critical Thinking Teaching Strategies) to the teachers of the camp, played basketball in the projects which serve as Queenie’s barrio (I use the word “projects” in a very literal sense), helped facilitate a large-scale parent charla along with other volunteers and teachers, and wrangled a free glass boat tour under the auspice of being a chaperone.

Dinamicas.

Dinamicas (icebreakers). 

Casey and Queenie showing me around beautiful Puerto Plata, one of my new favorite cities in Dominican Republic

Casey and Queenie showing me around beautiful Puerto Plata, one of my new favorite cities in Dominican Republic. Queenie was the director of her summer camp, and Casey gave weekly parent talks to an estimated 70+ parents of students for the 4 weeks of the summer camp.

The grant I wrote last spring is almost finished! Out of 87,000 pesos (or about 2,000 dollars) we only have 7,000 pesos left. With this grant, we’ve bought 336 children books for the school of El Ramon, which is the co-community I work in, and built 6 beautiful bookcases for each of the 6 classrooms to make “mini-libraries.” We also bought 30 copies of Alice in Wonderland in Spanish, and plan on facilitating a reading comprehension and critical thinking course with the 8th graders as soon as school starts. With what’s left of the grant funds, we are putting towards the costs of two teacher workshops: one in El Ramon with the local schoolteachers, and a larger teacher workshop with Centro Dominicano para la Paz at their center in El Ramon.

Rosa, my director is on the far right. The other three people in the photo were very gracious, helpful workers at the Libreria Disesa, my favorite of the 3 capital bookstores we visited to buy books.

Rosa, my director is on the far right. The other three people in the photo were very gracious, helpful workers at the Libreria Disesa, my favorite (and cheapest!) of the 3 capital bookstores we visited to buy books.

When school starts, I will also be helping administrate two more DPV courses at the high school, and one natural science course that focuses on environmental awareness along with Mattie. As discussed above, there is also two workshops planned for the month of August, one with the teachers of El Ramon, and the other as a district-wide, collaborative effort with Centro Dominicano para la Paz, the NGO I work with.

Plans that have also been talked about involve regular parent talks at both schools, facilitating a group of Somos Familia in another nearby community, and a sexual education course in the basic school in San Francisco. I’m not sure how many of these will come to fruition, but suffice to say that I am starting to get a little overwhelmed.

Altogether, this summer went by much too fast, it has also been very special, for so many reasons. I’m going to choose to show these in pictures:

I saw Lisa a several times, including her spending 2 days with me in San Francisco and El Ramon. She has been such a blessing in my Peace Corps service, if you can’t tell by this happy grin.

Along my favorite running route in the mountains.

Along my favorite running route in the mountains.

I saw Tres Ojos, a beautiful national park located smack-dab in the middle of Santo Domingo, on a gira, or community excursion. We visited the three caves and underground pools, then took some pictures with street art aboveground.

The whole gang.

The whole gang.

This is in the middle of Santo Domingo! And very easy to get too.

This is in the middle of Santo Domingo! And very easy to get too.

Tres Ojos, from the top.

Tres Ojos, from the top.

Girls from my community.

Girls from my community.

Juan Carlos y Alberto, algunos de los que son d'lo mio en mi comunidad.

Juan Carlos y Alberto, algunos de los que son d’lo mio en mi comunidad.

My best friend Jordan visited, bringing with him all of his ridiculousness.Too many funny stories for one week, and I’m so happy he came and got a glimpse of this crazy Caribbean life.

This story is every bit as funny as it looks.

This story is every bit as funny as it looks.

My family finally came! They spent a few days in my site, and then we stole away to a resort in Las Galeras, Samana for four days. It had been the first time in a year and a half I saw my Mom and littlest sister, Mckenna.

My family with my host parents, Lao and Tercia, in front of their house.

My family with my host parents, Lao and Tercia, in front of their house.

Last week, I got one of the worst sunburns of my life playing with our community team in an basketball tournament hosted by the youth group of a nearby community in the mountains. We lost of the tournament, but won because we definitely had the most fun of the teams, both during and after the tournament.

Court when we first showed up.

Court when we first showed up.

During the tournament.

During a break in the tournament.

Our team waiting to play.

Our team waiting to play.

The basketball tournament turned into a party at a local colmadon afterwards. People drink communally in a circle.

The basketball tournament turned into a party at a local colmadon afterwards. Here, we drink standing up in a circle, buying communal beers for the group as needed. 

Also last weekend, Andy, Mattie, and I visited the most remote mountain community in our province, La Piña. La Piña is a tiny community of 51 houses perched on a mountaintop in La Cordillera Central. The (self-imposed, somewhat ridiculous) rules for the day were we couldn’t spend any money on transportation, so we hitchhiked from my house to the trailhead which serves as their main road, where we then walked an hour and a half uphill to reach the community. Along the way, we stumbled across a local swimming hole where we went swimming, ran out of water, assuaged our thirst with Presidentes, and found some bolas to take us home.

Andy, myself, and Mattie after reaching La Pina.

Andy, myself, and Mattie after reaching La Pina.

On the way up.

On the way up.

Andy and Rufus, tickled pink to have found a local swimming hole along the way.

Andy and Rufus, tickled pink to have found a local swimming hole along the way.

I’ve also been feeling busier lately because I’m starting to make active plans to figure out just what I want to do after Peace Corps. This involves applying to Master’s in Public Administration programs of several different graduate schools, and I’m also in the middle of applying for another Fulbright. The country I’m picking to apply to is Ecuador, which was the program I applied to the first time I submitted an application for Fulbright. Because I don’t have a consistent Internet connection or a reliable computer, this involves a commitment to make a day trip to the capital once a week to use the Peace Corps office Internet, which has been a financial strain as well. Most of the schools I’m applying to are in Texas or Washington, DC, but I have my eye on several schools farther north, as well.

So in all I guess I can say that even though it’s been a crazy summer, and I’m more than a little overwhelmed when thinking about all the changes in my life starting this fall, I’m thankful for what I have and what I’ve been able to do.

I recently reactivated my Instagram account and happened across an anonymous quote the other night that has stuck with me since. It says:

 “Life is a chance. Love is infinity. Grace is reality.”

For me that sums up so much of what I am experiencing. Here, I have less control over my life than I have ever had before. I try to love both myself and others but sometimes it’s very hard to do so. And I increasingly find that grace –both given by myself and accepted from others—is the only way I will possibly have the strength to keep moving forward.

I sincerely wish that everyone reading this experiences a little more chance, love, and grace in their lives this week. Thanks for reading.

My Spanish Language Journey

I recently realized that although in this blog I’ve written about almost everything under this hot, steamy Caribbean sun —be that culture changes, my host family, relationships with other volunteers, work in my community, trips taken, etc.—I’ve yet to touch on one of the most important—and time-consuming—aspects of my life here: my Spanish language journey.

You know how some people seem to be able to pick up new languages like the Spurs pick up championship rings? The type of people that can just listen to a song in a new language and then sing it back to you, pitch perfect? Or do a study abroad in Spain for a semester and come back fluent?

I’m not one of those people.

In fact, I’m terrible at languages. Just ask Mrs. Frye, my high school Spanish teacher. In high school, I didn’t like Spanish, and Spanish didn’t like me: I was the worst student in her class, and spent more time thinking about girls and basketball than what was written on the board. Yet Mrs. Frye didn’t give up on me, and left me curious about the language. I still remember her quizzing me daily on what the Spanish word for basketball court is: cancha. I didn’t know it then, but years later I would use that same strategy—involving students by connecting their interests to the material—to engage a disruptive student in my English class in Colombia. Once I showed this student that what he cared about—in his case understanding English well enough to read English language instruction manuals on modifying motorcycles—I also cared about, he showed a greater interest in the class and progressed rapidly with extra work I assigned him.

Though this small interest in Spanish, I decided to take a basic Spanish class at college as part of my core component of required languages, and it was this class that provided with the language base I needed for an internship in Arequipa, Peru. I turned down a summer job working in a national park in Alaska to go to Peru, and remember thinking: “if I don’t like Spanish after this trip, then I’m done with Spanish.” Those 3 months in the southern Andes—and one patient, kind, and compassionate Peruvian host family—made me fall in love with Spanish and Latin American culture, which led to me pursuing a Spanish major in addition to my original course of study, English. A subsequent, self-initiated month-long trip to Cali, Colombia to volunteer at a technical institute teaching English helped me expand on my Spanish skills and increase my confidence.

With that said, a total of 4 months immersion and a Spanish major only teaches Spanish to people who are good at languages, not people like me. You see, I’m a highly visual learner, which means that when I hear instructions explained in an audio form—be that English or Spanish—I have a very hard time understanding. This doesn’t bode well for language learning, which requires developed audio skill to mimic conversation patterns and distinguish new words being used.

I came into the Dominican Republic March 2014 being able to communicate at a basic level in Spanish, but not anywhere close to being a truly effective speaker. During our language interview in the first few days of Peace Corps training, the language evaluator cut me off after a few minutes of listening to me butcher grammar tenses, telling me she had heard enough to give me my level qualification. I knew I hadn’t performed well enough to get a good score, but didn’t want to get stuck in a low class group where I would stagnate. I told the evaluator I knew better Spanish than what I was showing, and asked to extend the interview by 5 minutes. After those 5 minutes, she gave me a language level of 8, putting me in the highest class with native speakers.

To this day, I have no doubt in my mind that she gave me a higher score than I deserved because I asked to speak longer.

Being in the class with a group of all native speakers was very rewarding. In a group of 6 people there was only one other gringa a pura sepa, or non-native speaker, and her and I had similar levels so we were able to help each other. The rest of the students, a 100% bilingual Costa Rican, and 3 Americans who were raised in bilingual households to varying degrees, already spoke Spanish. Although classes with these native speakers often got off-track as the bilingual students got bored with grammar lessons, these 3-hour daily lessons helped give me an important foundation. The two and a half months of language training helped me learn more Spanish, and I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer at Spanish level of 8.5, but really my Spanish language journey was just starting.

I dedicated the first 4 months of my service almost exclusively to learning Spanish. I completed cover-to-cover the Advanced Spanish Grammar book Peace Corps had given us, and spent countless hours hounding my host family with questions. My host family lives next to a busy road, and struggling to understand conversations over the background noise of screaming motorcycles only added to the challenge. I began keeping notebooks, where I would write down new grammar, words, and phrases with the definitions in English. To date I’ve filled two notebooks with notes, and periodically refer back to them to refresh myself on forgotten phrases and words. I also started a tradition I’ve kept faithfully to this day, reading 5 pages aloud in Spanish daily from a chapter book. The first Spanish book I read was The Da Vinci Code, which was a perfect first read for many reasons. I had already read the book, so understanding it was easy. It was a translation, which is always easier to understand than literature written by a native speaker. And it includes lots of everyday dialogue, which is exactly the type of language I needed to be learning. I recently finished Diálogo sobre el Futuro Dominicano, which was written by Erasmo Lara, the director of the NGO in my community that I support, and am starting now Alicia en el país de maravilla. This Spanish copy of Alice in Wonderland is going to be the book we use for the reading comprehension and critical thinking course I help facilitate with the 8th graders in my community, and I’m reading it to familiarize myself with the storyline. After this book, I’m really excited to start Paulo Coelho’s A orillas del rio Piedra me senté y lloré, which will be my first time reading this renowned author in any language.

Although I brought English reading material and music in English, I completely cut that out of my daily lifestyle. My only “guilty pleasures” were keeping this blog and calling my Peace Corps friends. Even if it’s just to say hi, on most days I end up speaking English with one of my friends or family members on the phone. This detracts from true immersion, but is a necessary vice I need to maintain important relationships and keep my sanity.

Perhaps the most important effort I made early on was to find friends my age who I enjoyed spending time with. I can only talk to a doña or conucero for so long before the difference in our age and interests stagnates the conversation. Finding friends my own age with who I genuinely enjoy spending time was a pivot point in my Spanish language journey and also my Peace Corps experience.

These days, the challenge is how to keep my motivation fresh and not level off in my Spanish acquisition. I still read aloud in Spanish, but I also print out and study song lyrics, or try to find interesting Spanish help articles online. FluentU.com has been a great resource, as well as www.wordreference.com. Most of my closest relationships within the Peace Corps community are with people who are better at Spanish than I am, so that also helps. When I talk to people in Spanish, I try to make a conscious effort to include new Spanish words, phrases, and grammar constructions to help me practice them. Even if I say ridiculous things, I comfort myself with the thought that I’m that much less likely to forget what I’m learning. My Dad once told me: if you use a new word 3 times you’ll never forget it. That holds true more often than not.

More than anything, I’ve discovered that it’s the attitude with which you approach a conversation that affects true understanding and comprehension. I call this the “swag factor.” On days where I don’t have this swag, and approach conversations and people tentatively and timidly, it’s very hard for both parties to understand each other. But when I approach a conversation with confidence and boldness, o sea, with swag, it’s then that effective communication happens. Dominicans can pick up on it as well. If they sense that you are a nervous speaker, they will automatically assume they won’t be able to understand what comes out of your mouth. I’ve watched it happen with me more times than I can count.

This swag is the single most important aspect of learning a new language. If you don’t have this confidence—and I often don’t—you have to manufacture it, to fake it until you do feel it.

About 8 months ago, during In-Service language training, I was given a 10 as a Spanish level, which is the highest level given. According the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), a level 10 speaker is defined as such:

Speakers at the Superior level are able to communicate with accuracy and fluency in order to participate fully and effectively in conversations on a variety of topics in formal and informal settings from both concrete and abstract perspectives. They discuss their interests and special fields of competence, explain complex matters in detail, and provide lengthy and coherent narrations, all with ease, fluency, and accuracy. They present their opinions on a number of issues of interest to them, such as social and political issues, and provide structured arguments to support these opinions. They are able to construct and develop hypotheses to explore alternative possibilities.

When appropriate, these speakers use extended discourse without unnaturally lengthy hesitation to make their point, even when engaged in abstract elaborations. Such discourse, while coherent, may still be influenced by language patterns other than those of the target language. Superior-level speakers employ a variety of interactive and discourse strategies, such as turn-taking and separating main ideas from supporting information through the use of syntactic, lexical, and phonetic devices.

Speakers at the Superior level demonstrate no pattern of error in the use of basic structures, although they may make sporadic errors, particularly in low-frequency structures and in complex high-frequency structures. Such errors, if they do occur, do not distract the native interlocutor or interfere with communication

Although this was a great confidence booster, in that moment I still had a long way to go, and I still have a long way to go now. People who are close to me know that I’m still very insecure about my Spanish, and that I frequently make easy errors, lack comprehension, or pronounce things poorly. Comprehension in large groups is still difficult, and although I speak rapidly and relatively error-free, my pronunciation has never been completely there.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m not done, that this Spanish language journey of mine—contrary to my original expectations—is not the type of journey that has an ending point. I’m never going to be able to wake up and say: I’m a fluent Spanish speaker. Every day will continue to be a learning experience, often frustrating, but always rewarding.

I wrote this post with the intention of explaining an important aspect of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer, but also as a reference point and source of inspiration for hopeful second language learners. If someone like me, who has no natural skill with languages, can pick up Spanish, than anyone can. It just takes the right environment, lots of practice, and the (often faked) swag factor.