Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why only Dominicans Can Turn an Epidemic into Pop Culture

Dominicans are hella good at small talk. I'd venture to say they're professionals. I'm going to go ahead and admit that I'm getting pretty good at it too. You see, there are a few main topics to touch on in standard small talk in the DR.

1. The weather. "hay dios, que calor" or "Oh lord it's so hot, "Quee solazoooooo" or "What sun!", "Nos vamos a quemar!" or "We're all going to burn up!" All typical phrases, especially this time of year when it's realllllly starting to get steamy up in here (listen to me, what am I talking about? This place is an inferno year round). Typical responses are, "Buuuuenoo" which is a stark agreement, "Que dios nos protege" or "God protect us" and the usual "hay si!" or "oh yes!". 

2. The family. "Y la familia?" so typical, and this island is seriously so small that even I who have been here for only a year and 3 months can talk to someone in the capital who knows someone in my pueblo who I know. Typical responses are, "ah tu no sabia que fulana 'ta embarazada otra vez?" or, "oh you didn't know that (so and so) is pregnant again?", "viviendo de uno" or "living off of one (that person)", and "estan bien!!" or "they're good!". 

3. The electricity or "luz". Asking what time it went out, what time it's coming back or how "ella no sirve" or "it's not worth a damn". Also consistent complaining about how it's never on.

And now ladies and gentlemen I present you with the newest topic for small talk that's caliente in the country right now.

La Chikungunya. Sometimes referred to as the Chimichanga, the chichiguya, or the "virus".

If you are reading this and you don't live in the DR, here's some background info on what it is. Chikungunya iMakonde for "that which bends up". It is transmitted similarly to dengue fever and causes an illness with an acute febrile phase lasting two to five days, followed by a longer period of joint pains in the extremities; this pain may persist for years in some cases. 

I think it's officially an epidemic. EVERYONE has had it and EVERYONE is talking about it. All you have to ask is, "so, have you gotten it yet?" on the bus and everyone erupts in conversation about how terrible it has been. 

This is a parody on a powdered juice label that's very popular in Latin America:

There was also recently a dembow (Dominican version of reggaeton) song and video made about it which you can see here. The mosquito pictured is actually very accurate, it looks just like the one that carries Chikungunya. 

It's no joke though, this has been wiping out entire pueblos at a time and in every organization there is at least one person sick with it. I see people hobbling to the corner store to buy their daily food items, grabbing walls and trees to be able to stand up. Some of my own family members had it weeks ago and are still suffering from joint pain, swelling and stiffness. It's even harder to see an infant or a small child struggle with it. 

As a development worker living in a developing country, it's eye opening to realize how much more prone these populations are to health issues and how fewer solutions there are for them. I'm sure in the cases in the US people have been hospitalized for days until they feel better but here people don't have options, they have to lay in their bed all day under a smoldering zinc roof with a fever that takes more than 24 hours to break. 

Public health have given workshops in almost all areas about filling in puddles, covering water tanks, sleeping with mosquito nets and using insect repellent. I just read here that totals in the caribbean have reached 190,000 reported cases. Doctors here in the DR are predicting that 5 million people (that's half of the population) will have had it by the end of the summer. 

But it sure does make great small talk to pass the time, and no, I have not gotten it yet. 
Hope you think of me next time you kill one of those clean US mosquitoes!


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sealed the Deal

I've been holding off to post because I really wanted this to come before anything else (next up is about how a pandemic has become pop culture in the DR).

It's been (and will continue to be) a long journey. Remember this? Yeah. Countless times I've left La Red cursing under my breath and swearing that I'd never return.

We finally sent a container of cacao to our friends at Taza Chocolate.
There was lots of merengue tipico, mamajuana and beer as we waited for the container to arrive from Santo Domingo to load. As we waited, more and more people came. The container finally rolled in around 8pm and it felt surreal. I was always very unsure as to if I would ever see the day that a container leaves from our warehouse.  But I did.

210 jute sacks full of fermented organic cacao. 14.7 metric tons. Blood, a lot of sweat and even some tears.

Each 140lb sack was hand (or head) loaded. 

Making the last one fit. 

And I couldn't be happier. The payment for that cacao will make life a little easier around La Red. What's next? Well, the harvest is pretty much over. I'd like to believe that we will continue buying cacao as it closes out but really we need to start financially planning for the next harvest in October and maybe look for some potential investors for pre-harvest purchase money. 
I have plans to make a formal website, finish the new labels for our cocoa powder that we sell and begin to settle some old debts that the coop has. 

But this week is bittersweet. One of our oldest board members who has been with La Red since the beginning, Carlos Suarez (pictured below, far left) suffered a heart attack late Saturday night and has been in the hospital since then. He is sorely missed at the project and we are all praying for him. 

Love from chocolate country, Kaley

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The day the bus driver saved my life...

If there were only one thing I could chose for you to understand about Dominican culture, you will find it here.

So the bus driver didn't really save my life. He saved my recent trip to the US though and gave me one of those mind jolting, reality-checking experiences that make you step outside your life and realize that maybe there is another way to look at things.

At 10 AM I carried my nearly empty suitcase down the stairs of my apartment complex and into my community's town hall vehicle to take me to Nagua to get on the bus to Santo Domingo.
"Do you have everything?" The driver, who is a family friend asked me in  Spanish.
"Of course!" I said. Obviously I was super excited to go back for a week and had thought this through a couple of times. We dropped off my keys at my host family's house and headed for the bus stop.

Normally I take the big air conditioned bus that doesn't stop and has a zero tolerance policy (everyone gets a seat and it is forbidden to talk to the driver during the trip), but that costs more and leaves less frequently, so I opted for the regular old guagua. We left at 11. Per usual, the guagua filled up 5 to a row back to front. About 30 minutes in to the ride, I realize my passport is on my dresser in my apartment. As we turn on to the main highway to head south, I tell the cobrador that he has to let me off because I didn't have my passport and my flight was at 4:30. I wasn't sure what I was going to do but I had to get back to my house.

The driver insists that this idea is ridiculous and that I'll never make it to the airport in time. Call your family, he says. Tell them to go get your passport and I'll call the bus stop to see if the driver will bring it down with him on the bus that leaves at noon. You can wait for him at the bus stop along the highway. I begin to sweat... and curse. The whole bus now knows what's going on. The woman sitting next to me with a chicken in a cardboard box on her lap grabs my hand and tells me to have faith and breathe. Yeah right, lady.

I call my host dad in a panic and explain to him what's going on and that I needed him to go get my passport. The next bus was leaving at 12, and it was now 11:45. He was in Nagua and my passport was 20 minutes away. I begin to tell him where it was in my house but of course, I lose cell phone signal as we pass through a national park. Meanwhile, my driver had called the next driver to tell him what was going on. He agreed, but said that he wouldn't wait. When we finally come out of the black hole of cell phone signal, I call my host dad. He located my passport and was on the way to the bus stop but I soon find out from my driver that the bus has already left. We call back and ask him to wait about 30 minutes outside of Nagua for my passport to be delivered. He agrees and then we lose signal again before I can tell my host dad where to meet the bus.

25 minutes later I'm drenched in sweat despite the blasting AC. I get signal back but I'm out of minutes. I borrow my bus driver's phone to find out what was going on. The passport was successfully delivered to the driver of the 12 o'clock bus. As I pass the news to the driver and the cobrador, the entire bus erupts in applause and the chicken lady gives me an "I-told-you-so" smirk.

When I arrive to the stop in Santo Domingo it's 1pm. My taxi guy is already there waiting for me and I explain that we have to wait an hour for the next bus to arrive before we can head to the airport. At 2pm, the bus pulls into the stop and the driver hands me my passport in it's gold case and says, 200 pesos (about $6). I would have given him 500. Passport in hand, I was off to the airport.

I know some of you are probably wondering how in the world I forgot my passport. Others are wondering how I put a document with my social security number on it in the hands of perfect strangers. I guess it's like the chicken lady said, have faith. This story is the best example I can give you about the hearts of Dominicans. They never worry, so why should I?
I couldn't think of a better way to leave the country I call home for a quick vacation to the US, which was fabulous!

xoxo, Kaley