Wednesday, July 22, 2015


I've been thinking about this blog post for about seven months, long overdue as it may be I'm publishing it.

I left you hanging like clean laundry back in September...and with good reason. Around that time I realized I was taking a lot of things in my life for granted. A beautiful island, loving people, great friends and my quality of life. I will never be in that exact place ever again and I am so overjoyed that I did it. There were a lot of times I wanted to go home and it wasn't always cold presidentes (sometimes they were warm) and playa, but it taught me things about myself I could not have learned anywhere else.

On Finishing
Yes, on May 15 I finished my Peace Corps service. It was bittersweet and down right scary. I stayed in country for a few extra days to say my goodbyes, which even thinking about it still makes me well up a little bit. If you would have told me two and a half years ago that I would leave the DR with a couple of second families and someone who means the world to me I might not have believed you. Being a foreigner is hard. I wish more people understood that. Love for a culture, for an overall way of life, for an unforgettable dialect of Spanish, for hardworking and inspiring friends and the excitement of never knowing what each day would bring are what kept me going. I don't ever expect to do more rewarding work in my life and if it ends up staying that way, I'm totally okay with it.

On Mangaring Visas
Although I never really took dating Dominicans seriously (ha, maybe an understatement), one got me good. To make a long story short, when my time came winding down I decided that I wasn't ready to be done and living in another country wasn't necessarily a reason to end things. Many people don't realize that Dominicans (and the majority of the world) can't travel to the US without a visa. Visas are hard to get. There is a lot of criteria to meet and the process is complicated. Not to mention there is a stigma about getting a visa through an American (marriage for business). At the end of April we decided that he would apply for a tourist visa to give us some flexibility to continue seeing each other.
On the day of his interview we were both nervous wrecks. What will this mean for our relationship if he is denied a visa? How happy will we be if he's approved? I waited outside the U.S. Consulate in the sweltering heat as I watched him pass through security. While I waited I made friends with the police and security guards who work the front doors. After about an hour, one of them yelled "here he comes!" I felt my stomach drop but when he saw the little piece of paper in his hand he looked at me and smiled. "They wanna talk to you."
I walked through security and up to the second floor where interviews are held. Interview is a loose term as everyone can hear and see your exchange with the consulate officer. We nervously held sweaty hands as we waited our turn. When we got to the front of the line at the window where he started his interview the officer began to speak to me in English, asking me about us and about Peace Corps. I could tell English was not his first language. After a short exchange he stared at his computer screen for awhile and then turned back to me.
"I'm not going to give him a one-entry visa," he said. I looked down and began to process what had just happened. "I'm going to give him a ten year visa," with a huge grin on his face. I quickly raised my head.
"But..why?" I asked.
The officer paused and responded, "because 12 years ago I was in his exact position, at the U.S. Consulate in the Ukraine asking for a visa to visit my girlfriend and her family. She was a Peace Corps volunteer there and I met her during her service. She's right here, actually." He pointed to a woman who walked by behind him. They are married and have two kids and are now foreign service officers in Santo Domingo.

On What's Next
The one who got me visited the U.S. for the first time for 3 weeks in June. I could not have asked for a better visit. He met almost all of the most important people in my life.

I also live close enough to my compadre Andy and we've been able to see each other a few times now. I live in my parent's basement (lolz) and am currently looking/interviewing for jobs.
The DR calls me. It's like a magnetic pull. I dream of the Bella Epoca, driving around the campo while drinking a beer out of a plastic cup, the beach and technicolor bachata. I know when I go back it will be like nothing changed and I can't wait. Until then I'll just keep dancing merengue in my bathroom.
I'll never stop listening to reggaeton, craving fried plantains or feeling a familiar affection when I see a plastic lawn chair. And every day for the rest of my life I will think about my service.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Death in the DR

One of the most interesting things that I have learned in my service is how universal connections between human beings are. After 10 months in my new community I can proudly say that I feel like I am from here and that certain people in this area have accepted me not only as the “Americana” but as a daughter, niece, sister and friend. I feel like I've lived here my entire service. “Aplatanada” they say, which means I am one of them.
Family is number one in Dominican culture. Cousins who grow up together refer to each other as sister-cousins because calling each other cousins just doesn't quite describe the relationship accurately. You would be hard pressed to find a homeless Dominican outside of the large cities. Why? Because the people here take care of each other. They find places for the family members and friends to sleep and make a little extra food to make sure no one goes hungry.
Yesterday, La Red Guaconejo (my project) lost a close member of our family. Tita was the wife of the ex-president, Hilario, and both founding members of La Red, godparents of a close friend and leaders in their community.
Death in the rural areas of the DR is very different from American culture. As soon as the person dies (almost always in their house) the funeral begins. The house fills up with neighbors, family and friends to pay their respects. I mean inside, outside and in the street; people everywhere. Sometimes, the family will just leave the body in bed or laying on a table for viewing. In my personal observations here there is no shame in death, nor do people fear it. At first I thought it was disgusting that the body was just left in a bed but not only are there not many other options (Tita was in a casket with a window to see her face), but the rawness of the situation is what molds this culture to be fearless of death and gives them closure.
People pass through the room to say goodbye and then sit around for hours talking. It is customary for people to cry loudly, even scream, not holding back on showing their emotions. Plastic chairs are usually rented and it's common for about dozen of the family's closest friends to spend the night at the house. Since there are no embalming processes, the body is buried the next day. On this day the family of the deceased makes a huge feast (think food for 100+ people) for those who flock from near and far to show their support. After lunch there is a short mass and then everyone piles into pickup trucks for the procession to the cemetery. Goodbye music is played as the caravan parades through the nearby communities to the burial spot.
Once the deceased is buried (usually above ground) the process of los nueve dias, or the nine days of mourning begins. For nine consecutive days the house is totally open as a memorial to the deceased and many of the same people are there every day with the family, praying and remembering the life of their lost loved one. On the last day, the vela, which is the formal funeral prayer service, is held to close out the nine days of mourning. Attendees wear only black or white to show their respect.
In traditional cases, the anniversary of the death of that person is then remembered each month for two years. Once two years have passed the family is officially no longer mourning publicly.

Tita's funeral was really the first that I had been to here of someone who I knew. Being there with everyone gave me a sense of connectedness. These people take care of each other come hell or high water. Tita passed away from complications of advanced diabetes. She was in her early sixties. She can be seen in the trailer in this link at 1:05 sitting in front of the cocoa dryer right next to her house talking about the importance of development in her community. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On being pregnant in the DR

No, I'm not with child. This post was inspired by my mom, who told me that “no one would believe that shit if you told them that” after I shared this story with her recently.
Pregnancy is the Dominican Republic is a very interesting concept, different from my US perception.

First, it's almost absolutely impossible that a women doesn't have children and much more impossible at my age. I am asked almost daily why I don't have any kids or if my equipment doesn't work. Needless to say most women start and finish having children young. Kids raising kids.
Young men are dying to have kids and grown men want as many children as possible. It's like a status symbol. In rural areas it's not uncommon for a man to have two families, which is also a symbol of power and wealth. Women who are sterile or cannot have kids are often not married and seen as useless.

Pregnant women hold a special place in society here. They are adored by all men and are usually waited on hand and foot. Have to pee on the bus? No chance the driver will stop but if you tell him you're pregnant he'll pull over ASAP. Dominicans have some pretty crazy explanations for life's little wonders. One of my favorite ones is that when a child is born with a birth mark it means that the mother was not given the food she was craving and so it “stains” the child. No joke, people believe that.

Many women go their entire pregnancy without seeing a doctor. Not because they don't want to, but because they don't have the money and/or live in very rural areas that are almost inaccessible. I imagine being pregnant here would be much like being hungover in this country; it's 110 degrees outside and no air conditioning in sight, the water you are dying to drink could potentially make you sick and none of the food you want is available. Sounds pretty awful to me.

So yesterday late afternoon I head down to my host family's house to pay them a visit. They are from one the most rural communities in this area. To get there you either have to be in a very stable four wheel drive vehicle with an experienced driver (good luck finding either of those), by motorcycle (not recommended) or you can walk. It's about an hour motorcycle ride or thirty minutes on a motorcycle and a forty five minute hike. Either way you have to cross the river about 8 times, half of those times there is no bridge. You may remember this post when I went up to see another PCV's new house with the safety and security coordinator of Peace Corps.
When I arrive to their house I find my host mom's nephew Joel, his brother, and his girlfriend who is sitting in a chair in their kitchen in labor. When I turn the corner I see her water has broken all over the floor and she proceeds to tell me that she came down this morning at hour on a motorcycle riding down the mountain on the back of a motorcycle on a (rough) dirt road while in labor. ON THE BACK OF A MOTORCYLE IN LABOR. Mud flying, rock dodging...I can only assume she rode side-saddle because I can't imagine straddling a motorcycle while in labor. Jesus Cristo. As I go to get her a glass of water she stands up and tells my host sister that it's time to WALK to the hospital. They all agree it's good for her to get a little exercise. The hospital in my community is a 15 minute walk and she had been in labor all day. No epidermal no nada for the pain. Drenched in sweat Losauri took her by the arm and I watch them walk slowly down the street, my host mom in tow with towels and sheets because the hospital doesn't provide those things.
The hospital here does not really allow people to spend the night as they don't have the resources to pay staff members to do night shifts so in most cases the woman is given an IV and her vitals are monitored as she gives birth. She almost always goes home within an hour of giving birth because the hospital doesn't have enough beds to accommodate all of the sick people in the community.
This is normal here. All of the things that you and I find inconveniences and hardships in my story are totally normal for her, as this is her third time going through the process of giving birth.

The situation for giving birth here may not be up to our standards but the highlight of the experience was seeing the excitement and nervousness on Joel's face to welcome their newest member of the family into the world. I asked why he didn't want to go to the hospital right away and he said he hated to see her in pain. I stayed to help in the family store with my host dad since everyone was at the hospital and a few hours later when I was leaving I saw Joel finally going up to the hospital. As he passed me on my street he turned and waved, flashing an ear to ear grin.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

First and foremost I want to thank my dear friend Britta Deux (danke) for nominating me for the Ice Bucket Challenge. I got nominated in German, how cool is that?!

Second, I apologize for not completing it in 24 hours, high speed internet and electricity are hard to come by down here. Video uploading almost out of the question.

Since this challenge is about awareness I'm going to go ahead and make you all aware of a situation in the DR and in most developing countries. Clean water is hard to come by. Water has not come out of my faucet since June. It's August 24. Can you imagine?
I'm not complaining, as this is what I signed up for but think about the people in my region who haven't had water to cook or bathe with at their fingertips for months. They didn't sign up for that.

Now, think about how strange the ALS Bucket Challenge looks to them on Facebook. People dumping a bucket of cold water on their head...but with that bucket of water the average Dominican (and I) could bathe at least twice. Oh and the water's cold? Yeah, our bathing water is always cold. Refer to my post on Bucket Bathing 101. At 7am that water is freezing.

Drinking water is a whole other issue. The large bottle in this picture costs about a dollar, which is almost 10% of what an average Dominican makes in a day's work.

I have nothing against the cause. In fact, I will be donating. 
Will I be dumping a bucket of water over my head? No, because I need that water to wash dishes, cook, clean and bathe. 
Will I nominate more people? No, because this is about awareness and I think people should donate without wasting water. 
I am super happy for the ALS community and the attention and donations it has received, just encouraging people to be aware!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

More Confessions from my Kitchen...

So if you are not a PCV or not interested in what I cook, you can just go ahead and skip this post. Apologies. But the truth is getting creative with food here is tricky, and so is making sure I eat enough veggies. So here goes some recent happenings in my 4 x 6 foot kitchen. I should also mention I haven't had a functioning refrigerator since April...

A little chick pea-cucumber-cilantro salad

Curried broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and onions over white rice with avocado.

Standard fried plantains with a fried egg and cheese. Fabulous hangover food.

Black bean burgers with tostones

Skillet potatoes with peppers and onions and fried eggs. Also great for hangovers.

Brown sugar glazed carrots, tuna cakes with dill mayo and lettuce salad with honey lime garlic vinaigrette. And fresh cheese. 

Coconut curry stew over white rice with fresh cilantro and cabbage salad and of course, avocado. 

Not pictured here:
Egg salad
Carrot bread
9.5 pounds of mangu (mashed boiled plantains with butter, for those of you who are not Dominican) complete with fried salami
The 12 other avocados I've eaten since the season has started 
Banana bread
Approximately a gallon of banana smoothie because someone gave me 25 ripe bananas that I had no idea what to do with.

Honey Garlic Lime Dressing
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 garlic clove, pressed or finely minced
  • pinch coarse salt and pepper

Tuna Cakes

  • 1 6oz can of tuna fish in water or oil, drained
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup celery
  • 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 egg
  • Pinch of pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Fresh lime juice
Combine tuna, onion, bread crumbs and pepper in a bowl. Gradually add olive oil to make mixture into a sticky paste like texture. Form small patties and pan fry in a little bit of vegetable oil until brown on both sides a heated through. Drizzle with fresh lime juice and serve with light mayo mixed with fresh or dried dill. 

Black bean burgers
  • 1 (16 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
These can be baked or grilled (pan fried in my case).
  1. In a medium bowl, mash black beans with a fork until thick and pasty.
  2. Finely chop bell pepper, onion, and garlic. Then stir into mashed beans.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together egg and hot sauce
  4. Stir the egg mixture into the mashed beans. Mix in bread crumbs until the mixture is sticky and holds together. Divide mixture into four patties.
  5. If grilling, place patties on foil, and grill about 8 minutes on each side. If baking, place patties on baking sheet, and bake about 10 minutes on each side.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Celebrating the Home of the Free and the Brave

It's true, I never knew how American I really was until I left the US. I know sometimes PCVs feel like they sometimes even have to defend their country from stereotypes and harsh assumptions about the US. Best way to handle it? Make it a learning experience.

When it comes to celebrating the grand old flag, we definitely know how to do it. This year about 90 volunteers flocked to Bayahibe, a quant, whitewashed beach town in the east of the country. Per usual, we let loose. Without further adieu, here are the some pics (a few borrowed from Katy).

And upon my return to my site, I got the chikungunya. I'm all better now though. 

Hope you had a fabulous 4th!

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!