Water Water Everywhere…

10 12 2011

In the fall of 2009 I moved into a house in a poorer area of my rural town.  Upon moving in, I found that though part of a greater community in which most residents drink water straight from the tap, in this part of town there was a poorly built aqueduct that permitted contamination to enter the water system.  Weirdly enough, this in a way was exciting news. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer can be maddeningly ambiguous.  I work to instill a value for education and critical thinking, inspire youth, create functioning committees… It’s a process more than a project, and I may never be able to really see or measure success for most of my efforts.   Suffice to say, the potential to fix something, physically, with my very own hands even, was extremely enticing.

As I have zero experience in civil engineering I turned to the Peace Corps water sector team, and in the end they decided to come do a training in my site.  Even better.  Not only would I fix the water problem for the 26 houses that make ‘Lo Abanico, Manabao,’ I would bring in a new group of 20+ volunteers for 5 weeks- stimulating the local economy with the funds that Peace Corps provides for host families to care for trainees.  The final bonus was that I would be free to participate as much as I pleased in training- basically a free course on rural gravity-based water systems.

Training was great, the volunteers and community members worked- and played- well together, I learned quite a bit about water system construction (and also that I could use some quality time in the gym), and the community benefited from economical and infrastructural influxes.  But what about that goal of fixing Lo Abanico’s water once and for all- woops.  We connected the new system only to find we had not captured sufficient water.  This came as a shock because according to measurements the quantity of water should have been fine- but we weren’t providing a brand new system with Peace Corps approved pipes to families accustomed to using little water.  We were working with a system built with cheap and easily breakable pipes and people who leave taps open, farmers who connect the water to their crops, and vacation houses who use the water to fill pools.  Well, people should sacrifice their lazy habits in the name of clean water, right?  Maybe, but the general attitude was that the project just flat-out failed and it was best to go back to free-flowing dirty water.  It probably should have ended there, but my ego cried out its need for tangible results.

To back up my ego there were community members still dedicated to he effort.  There is Roberto, the poor community plumber who because of the poor source design had to hike to spring to clean out the clogged pipes just about daily.  And there is Jose, who promoted the original project and organized the community so well; and, though people are too polite to complain to me are not shy to complain about the water situation to him. We decided the best option was to convince a nearby community to share their water by constructing a larger structure to capture all of the plentiful water at the base of a small river.  It was a relatively simple and low-budget plan.  We aimed for a fundraising goal and went for it, but alas, failed to convince community members it was worth the investment.  It probably should have ended there, again.  We always try to stick to high standards for community involvement for Peace Corps projects and not provide one-sided handouts.  But, it was still feasible so even though the community didn’t raise the money necessary and didn’t show up in the numbers we asked for to work we went for it anyways.  I felt an odd sense of guilt as we worked away, like I was betraying the proper development model because only four of us were 100% dedicated and the community seemed apathetic.  Who was the project really for after all?

After a .week the work was done, and successfully- two communities, 35 houses, now connected to a better-protected and more abundant source.  The communities will now benefit from year-round clean water (si Dios quiere), Roberto will no longer have to hike to the source daily, and I will leave here with my ego intact, maybe even boosted.

I could sell it as selfless and tireless dedication to a community need, but it would be a lie to neglect that part of me that was motivated by the selfish desire to get accomplish something tangible during my time here.  Days after, seeing the positive impact our work has already had on the community, I am feeling less guilty about my selfish motivations

Reflections on Peace Corps-lite

24 08 2011

I recently picked up the book, Power Lines, from a friend.  It’s a book written by Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy Carter, about his experience in Peace Corps South Africa 1998-2000.  I almost didn’t grab it because it felt corny for some reason, in the same way as it seemed cheesy to me that a bunch of volunteers sought out the book, Love in the Time of Cholera, right after the outbreak in Haiti.  It just seemed like a lame attempt to romanticize our ‘Cuerpo de Playa’ services- we are in the Caribbean for Christ’s sake!

Regardless, I picked it up because I have always been interested in South Africa and I figured the book would have some interesting insight on the culture and history.  It definitely did, but I what struck me the most was the level to which the book resonated with my experience here.

Jason talks about Africa-lite and his initial disappointment for not getting the idealized Peace Corps post of extreme isolation.  (Beach Corps anyone?) Then he talks about how in the end this made the experience possibly more challenging because he was always one short bus from American comforts- también.  He talks about going in with the mentality that he will live those 2 years in his village and a sort of disgust of those ‘Americanized’ places as over-priced centers of lost cultures.  After not much time those people living at the sort of level he lives in America make him uncomfortable.

I remember the first time the rich family who owns a vacation home my host-family takes care of came.  My host mom was so excited to introduce me to her friends, for whom she is also basically a servant.  She cooks and cleans and makes sure their stay is comfortable, and the family in turns financially supports my host family to a great extent.  They genuinely enjoy one another’s company, and the fact that one side is always paying and one side always serving seems not to matter in the slightest. I, treated as another member of my host family, am invited over to drink, eat, and basically mooch off the comforts of this beautiful home.   The first time I went there I was sure I was breaking some sort of rule- this isn’t Peace Corps!

Then things stop being uncomfortable- I am fluent, people come over and hang at my house, I can go to theirs, the town’s youth are wrapped around my finger and I am going to give them the capacity to take over the world.  And when that rich family comes, I happily snack on expensive snacks and drink beers without concern.  I stopped trying to make my lifestyle fit my pre-conceived notions of Peace Corps service and my American perceptions of poverty, and I am much happier here for it.

Integration is a high, but it wears off.  Last year I lived for the community.  In the morning I coached or taught computer lab management, in the afternoons we went to the river and played volleyball until 10pm sometimes.  I made friends with whom I feel a genuine connection, and I have a host family that I love as I had known them my whole life.  Still, this year is different. I travel more, work more out of my computer, and the fact is that sometimes I choose to hang out by myself instead of going over to someone’s house.

What happened?  Did I just become jaded and a bitch?  Probably  a little bit. However, I think successful integration naturally brings about the recognition that I am still very much an American.  It may be nice bonding, but if I am going to actually live somewhere I cannot watch bad telenovelas every night!   I live in one of the worst houses in my town and live a very local lifestyle.  However, I escape to the capital at least monthly and just the transport round trip costs more than my rent.  More and more often, I buy myself wine, apples, and good cheese.  Peace Corps salary is modest, but I am still making the same as a teacher and I don’t have a family to support.  Are we anything more than delusional tourists?

What’s more, I am ditching my campo to work out of the Peace Corps office in the capital.  We have been gaining momentum for a greater focus on Marine Conservation within the Environment Sector.  Before Peace Corps I was interested in Eco-tourism and Economic Development as well as scuba diving.  I was so jealous of the Environment Sector and considered asking for a sector change from education to their sector.  Now, I am going to be a leader of the sector in Marine Conservation to work on development of training content and sites for new volunteers as well as other marine education and monitoring programs. I get to work on something interesting and tangible that plays to my future career interests.  Dream come true, right?

Oh, but the guilt!  Leaving my old site early?  As if my peace corps experience wasn’t cheating enough, I am ditching my site to go to an office job in the capital- who am I? I worked hard over my year and a half here, I completed my project as outlined by Peace Corps, and there is no project here for which I feel the same passion.  However, when I signed up for Peace Corps I didn’t sign up to work on something important at an institutional level, how American of me to give up easy-going campo life for tangible work based out of an office.

With these final six months in my site I am giving one last hoorah- trying a new strategy for teacher integration in the computer lab and organizing my community to finish the project and actually improve their water system.  However, the guilt sticks and my work with marine conservation is a dangerous mental escape.  For example, when teachers don’t show up to a meeting I have announced for over 2 months I can just tell myself “That is why I am leaving- this is a waste of my time!”

Reading about Jason Carter’s struggles with similar feelings of guilt and inner battles of what his Peace Corps service should entail has been a surprising comfort.  In the end, it is all part of the experience- for every unforeseen struggle there has certainly been at least as many amazing opportunities and treats.

A day back in the life…

6 06 2011

Deanna is a nearby volunteer with Middlebury University who quickly became my gringa companion during her four months here.  Before she left, we promised ourselves we would do, well all sorts of things- fix her computers, go out dancing one last time, visit a bunch of places in the DR.  That list was not completed, but we did manage to get our act together to get out on one last hike- El Mogote.   I spent a rainy night at Deanna after failing to fix the computers in her community, comparing leg infection scars, translating love poems to phonetic english for her neighbor, and sacrificing lights to make the inverter last long enough to see one more episode of West Wing.  The next morning we packed up early and headed out, picking up an extra hiking buddy, a guy in her community who is always up for a random adventure.

El Mogote- we knew it was long and steep, and we knew it would be wet as it has rained/POURED every day for the last 2 weeks, and it was truly all of the above.  3 hours of steep slick path, the whole time wondering how the hell we will get back down.   When we reached the top (por fin!) we find this house complete with solar panels, chickens, and an older dude who looks like he spends plenty of time alone.  Also, we find the second leaning tower of pisa- the most crooked lookout tower ever.  40ft up and seemingly built by a wasted person… it was a wonder of physics but probably not going to fall today so we sat at the top, ate, and took in the 360 degree views of the Cordillera Central.

The man, who we dismissed as crazy, calls up to us and asks where our house is.  Our friend, Wiki, points and the man says, ‘What kind of tree is in your front yard?’  Wiki says its a lime tree and the man retorts, ‘I was pissing on that tree earlier… pee pee pee pee pee, pee pee pee pee pee (in the same tone they use to call their chickens),’ and bursts out laughing.  Craziness confirmed.  He then makes his way up the tower and looks at Deanna, “How long are you staying up here?  A year, a month?”  She tells him she is heading home and he replies, “Well at least stay the night, I’ll take you tomorrow. We’ll go to America together”  By American standards that may be serial killer creepy, but here it actually made the guy sound more normal.  Turns out this guy works for the Ministry of Environment and after his 15 day turn at the top of the mountain, we believe looking out to prevent deforestation, he will head back down and then off to Long Island, to visit his brothers and sisters that live there.  He shares his binoculars with us and we check out our communities from afar, then Wiki and him figure out which family relations from his community of 40 some houses this guy knows- like we had just gone over to a neighbor’s or something.    He then turns to me and Deanna, “You guys from Peace Corps?”  Small world afterall.

He then tells us we went up the shitty hard trail, and points out the easy trail that takes us down to the same trail head, basically saving our lives.  Wiki takes some of his harvested beans to plant by his house, and we are on our way. Sometimes it seems like a pain in the ass to be so friendly with every person you meet here, but this time, it paid off!

We cruise down, taking in the seriously rural lifestyles of the few people that live out there, and eventually go into Jarabacoa to run some errands.  We go to get frozen yogurt from a place I in one year did not know existed, only the power goes out making us SOL for fro-yo.  We briefly ponder how an ice cream place decided it was okay not to install an inverter in a country where electricity is unpredictable, then moved on with life.  We waited over an hour to pick up mini-mart supplies for one of Deanna’s neighbor, drinking a beer and eating mango, then made it back up the mountain just in time for our daily 6-10 hour downpour.

When we pull up to my house, I realice my back door is wide open.  I know i didn’t leave it open, but I also know the lock has sucked recently so it very likely blew open in the breezy rain the night before.  Uh Oh… so much for the laptop and ipod sitting in my room, right?  Wrong.  Nothing has been touched, no one has gone in.  Maybe 30+ hours my house sat abandoned and wide open- not too many places in the world that can happen.

campo to casa, harder than it looks

26 04 2011

If a Peace Corps volunteer were to tell you it takes them 2 days and 20+ hours in an airport to get home you would probably place them in a decently remote country/site, right? Surprise!  That is how long it is taking me to get home from the DR right now.

On the map the DR is a hop away from the states.  That was a major mental issue I had with doing Peace Corps here in the first place- too close, too easy.  Well, yesterday morning I squeezed in the back of a pick-up with lot of bags, people, even a motorbike, and made my way towards the capital.  Several hours later, I take an expensive cab ride to the airport at 930pm to wait 4 hours just to find out that the standby list has about 40 people in front of me who have been here for up to three flights before trying to get on one back to the states.  Two month’s pay later, I am confirmed for an 8am flight to NY, followed by an 8+hour layover to get into vegas around 10pm…

The day before yesterday I built a waste-water garden and made yummy campo-foods with friends, bathed in the river, and soaked up the last of Semana Santa with my host family… All the while I was so pumped about making it home… still am, but America owes me one.  In the meantime, I am trying not to panic about $3 water bottles and $2 coffees, and the confusion of all the Dominican/Americanness in the airport right now.

Life in the Fast Lane…relatively speaking

11 03 2011

It is minus two months and counting until I go to America, but thinking of all I have planned to get done in the community beforehand makes me wonder if I will board the plane alive!  I am packing 5 courses (computer and HIV/Sports education), an appropriate technology sector training, 2 more conferences, and as much conservation diving experience as possible into the <2 months left until I get home.  Yikes.  And I thought Peace Corps was supposed to be boring!

It is great that I am busy, many volunteers pass a lot of time trying to find something, anything, to do.  But, about mid-way through my courses which consist mostly of middle-school age kids, and I would be lying if I love every minute.  Teaching computers without a projector (meaning I have to pass by computer by computer to explain things), and teaching 3 courses of ‘Deportes para la Vida’ to groups of 20-30 makes me lose my voice and my mind by the time I finish Thursday night.

That said, I know it is important.  The more time I spend here, the more I come to understand WHY many mothers only let their daughters come to evening events if I walk them home after… its not that they will get into trouble with their peers, its that some 35 year old dude thinks a 13 year old is fair game.  Gross, but a fact of life here.  Individually, even in groups of less than 10, I love these kids, so I just remind myself of these things when as a unit of 30 screaming teens they are driving me insane.

My greatest challenge here in PC is compromising my personal ambitions with my commitment to my site.  ‘Diving’ into the marine conservation stuff is the biggest of these, and it is relatively important as it is really something I want to consider as a future career, or at least a ‘third year’ option post May-2012.  Camps and conferences have also sucked up about a weekend a month for me.   These things have not interfered with my classes, but they leave me very limited time to hang, play with my dog/cat-dog, cook, play cards,… with the community.  It is my goal for my second year to say ‘no’ to more and create a better balance with site projects, marine conservation, and free time to spend in my community and visiting other volunteers.

Feliz Año Nuevo!

7 01 2011

Okay, so I’m back.  2 weeks of straight visitation- amazing and amazingly stressful.  Man, I am difficult to please!  Its great of course because visitors and loved ones, and also because visitors tend to take you on vacation.  Not that my daily grind or life here is so so rough, but I do enjoy a hot shower, wine, and the beach.  It is hard because having visitors reminds me of how my perceptions have shifted in my time here.  I consider myself a wanna-be peace corps volunteer here working in a computer lab in the Caribbean.  However, these visitors make me realize that what i have come to consider luxuries at one point were basics.  Additionally, there are certain things that I have never considered trying to avoid or change, and it turns out are very difficult to avoid regardless of how many pesos you have in your pocket.  My favorite example of this is noise.  Chickens, motos, pigs, ridiculously loud music, people yellings to be heard over the music… you get the idea.  Of course if someone just goes to an all-inclusive property you can avoid this.  Here’s the deal though for my visitors.  If you want to see a beautiful beach near the US, go to another island.  The beaches here are beautiful, but I think there are prettier beaches and better tourism infrastructure on other islands.  People who come here come to visit me and the DR.  And the DR is sooo not just beaches- the people and scenery are astounding.  Unfortunately, getting around and leaving giant enclosed properties leaves my unsuspecting visitors exposed to electrical outtages, extreme noise, crazy traffic, ect.

Always after a few days away from my site I get surprisingly intense anxiety to return.  Don’t ask me why, the second i get back and see my host family and friends in town I am at ease.  I come in, and as mentioned before, receive a major guilt trip.  But, i actually really and truly love some of the people here as my family.  I usually march straight over to my host mom’s place for some food and coffee before hiking up to my house.  Oh, and my house.  What a fucking disaster this place can end up after a few days, and after about 10 days… A mouse had gotten into my mini-fridge and eaten and shat all over everything.  Luckily my cat was by my side when i opened it to find him in there so he jumps into my fridge and grabs him.  My busted wáter filter had made a small river in my house, but hey, i needed to mop anyways.  Later, through a third party (because no one will confront anyone about anything here), i find out my cat had wandered into the neighbors and broken several lamps, and my landlord is looking for the rent money.  Between all these issues, the loneliness of living alone, and the constant reminders and questioning of my community about why I live alone and haven’t at least found myself a lover yet I sometimes consider moving back in with my doña.  But, I like my failing garden, making all the American food and music I want, and walking around naked (although its a bit cold for that right now).


As I said, I am back.  Three days back and busier than ever.  I am gearing up for a new round of computer clases, one of which will be taught by my youth.  We still will open the lab every morning, and I am also starting a program called “Deportes para la Vida”- an sports-based HIV/AIDS education program. Beyond that, I looking into funding to get my lab Unterrupted Power Supplies to keep the electrical surges and outtages from killing my computers, a projector, and USBs to sell in the lab.

Outside of the lab, a Peace Corps “Appropriate Technology” training group may head our way for their community training. I am lobbying hard, because this group could fix our aqueduct as a training exercise, and I could hopefully attend lots of training sessions to learn lots of random but potentially useful development tools.  Right now, I am helping a nearby volunteer build latrines.  Its so nice to do hands-on work and know you are improving a family’s life in a matter of days.  These families right now either have no bathroom or a real shitty latrine.  I mean, I went to the bathroom in one super broken-down latrine that was not being replaced, and they were using scrap paper as TP.  Its fantastic to do some good and practice my sawing and cement skills, but also makes me question once again, ‘why am I teaching computer clases when there are people nearby who can’t read and have nowhere to go to the bathroom?’

Finally,  for the Peace Corps Marine Interest Group, I am hopefully going to find time to  gain enough Reef Check experience to start teaching courses to volunteers.  It is a difficult goal to make work with my resolution to stay in my site more, but it is also something that I would like to possibly pursue beyond my two years here, so I do what i can to make this a priority.  Another volunteer and I also have a fun youth Exchange idea we would like to make happen, so we are also researching grants to fund the Project.

Si Dios quiere, I will finish 2 computer courses, 4 Deportes para la Vida courses, write 2 grants, become certified to teach Reef Check, and see my aqueduct fixed and attend lots of charlas over the next 4 months.  Whew.  Regardless of the outcome of all this, I will be back stateside a the end of April.


Campo Guilt

7 01 2011

“You threw us away!”, “You don’t love us anymore,” “But you have been lost, no?!”


If i had 5 pesos for everytime I have heard those lines, I would have more masitas than all the colmados in Manabao.  All is said in good humor, and playful guilt trips are an oddly consistent part of friendly dialogue.  But when you are already feeling bad and stressed from lots of travel, these comments can result in an acute case of campo guilt.

I of course am writing this blog as I head once again away from my site for meetings, a Christmas party thrown by our country director, and the arrival of one D-Smooth Macy.  I have been away from my site a ton, way more than I want to, but i can’t blame very much of that on Peace Corps. Starting in October I helped on a 5 day med mission, had a visit from mom, mandatory cholera meeting, mandatory 5 day hurricane consolidation, wáter filter training, Thanksgiving festivities, dive course, and 2 conferences.  So i can really truly blame about 7 days worth on peace corps, but even when I am at conferences and trainings for community programs I am torn.  I like taking advantage of these events because I want to learn as much as possible and bring diverse programs to the community.  However, this does not fall in line with the Peace Corps theme of living among the community.

My 2011 resolution is to hang more, not commit to more than 1 PC event/conference per month.  I know that even spending 2-3 weeks in my site without leaving will put me back in good graces and get me back in the swing of things, even if it means i freeze to death in January.