Sunday, July 26, 2009

Eating Thai Food, Taking Taxis, and Not Going to Honduras...until tomorrow, or What I am Doing in Miami

Well I guess I should start where I left off in my last post. We made it onto the plane, and after getting all the way to the runway, then turning back to remove a sick passenger and enduring the subsequent delay of finding his luggage in the belly of the plane and then refueling, we took off and made it to Miami. Then the 50 of us collected our 100 bulging bags and stationed ourselves by the car rental desks to wait two or three hours for a Peace Corps representative to fly down from Washington and meet us. American Airlines was putting us up in a Holiday Inn because, as it turns out, the whole situation was entirely their fault. The real reason behind the delay was that they had overscheduled the flight crew, and by law they need a certain amount of time off between flights, and that is the only reason we haven't been in Honduras since Wednesday.

Anyway, after much manipulating of luggage to get it to fit into the two shuttle buses that picked us up, we arrived at the hotel and settled into our rooms. A short time later, we all met in the lobby to go over the details of our next day's travel plans. Joshua from Washington had just finished explaining the itinerary when his phone rang. Everyone's paranoia focused on him, and the room filled with a tense silence that lasted for the duration of his call. When he hung up, he announced that there was a change of plans, and we would not be going to Honduras on Thursday morning, but would instead spend the night at the Holiday Inn and then change hotels and stay in Miami until early next week. This news was met with laughter, frustration, and chattering, and the meeting soon ended. When we thought we had only a night in Miami, a lot of tentative plans were made for dinner. After the meeting, I went with a group of trainees to a delicious Thai restaurant and ate too much.

The next morning, we again packed up our bags and loaded a charter bus to the point that there weren't enough seats, because our bags had filled the luggage area and heaped over several rows of seats. Our new hotel was nicer than the Holiday Inn, which heightened the surreality of going from three weeks of bucket baths to Miami and then getting stuck there.

Over the last few days, we've done some training, a lot of eating, and various amounts of sight seeing. I've discovered that I don't hate Miami as much as I thought I did. I also apparently acclimated a bit while in the DR, because I spent one day not covered in sweat. My former housemate said she had never seen me look so matte. The next day, however, we did a service project cleaning up a greenway, and I resumed my old sweating ways. Thankfully, a couple hours into the work, it started pouring, and I had a better excuse for looking like I just got out of the shower.

Anyway, I should get to bed. Hopefully, the next time you hear from me, I'll be in Honduras. Third time's the charm.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Join the Peace Corps, See Miami!

Hi friends and family,
I'm in the airport in Santo Domingo drinking a papaya smoothie and using the free internet. I've had a lot of time to settle in, because we got here at around 4 in the morning only to learn that our flight had been delayed, which meant that we would miss our connecting flight to Tegucigalpa, and as there is only one flight per day, we would be spending yet another night in Miami. A lot to process before 5, but we managed and made it to the gate and have sprawled all over the place.

The group is feeling a little paranoid at this point. Hopefully, American Airlines won't suspend service again, like it did this weekend, and we'll actually make it to Honduras. In the meantime, there are tentative plans for a sushi dinner.

I think everyone is pretty ready to leave the Dominican Republic. Yesterday morning, we said goodbye to our host families. My host dona cooked us a goodbye dinner the night before of moro--rice and kidney beans, ham, tomato and cucumber salad, and mangu--kind of like mashed potatoes, but with mashed green plantains instead. For dessert, we had homemade frozen mango juice.

Ok, well, the flight is boarding now. Hopefully, my next post will be from Honduras. Cross your fingers!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Capitana Cari

I’ve been spending a lot of time hissing at kids. Or one kid. There is a pack of boys on my street, and they all have individual things they do. One salutes me whenever I pass him. His name is Willis, and he calls me “Capitana.” Today, he hid around a corner and then jumped out when I walked by. He poked a twig at me and shouted “give me everything.” And then he shook my hand and saluted me. Another boy named Christopher acts like a motorcycle. I like to make raptor noises at him, and then he makes handlebars and vrooms down the sidewalk. Fernando likes to walk past my balcony and hiss at me, and then I hiss back, and he hisses, and we keep doing this until he’s out of earshot or I give up and just wave at him. The only problem is that hissing at people is a kind of common way for people to communicate. More specifically, men hiss at women as they walk by to get their attention. There is an internet café across the street from my house, and there’s often a group of young men standing there. Last night, I kept hearing hissing, so I’d hiss back, and then I realized that Fernando was not the hisser, and I felt real awkward. There is also a pack of girls who live around the corner. They have crazy names like Eulissa and Nikauli, and they like to whisper in my ears. I played tag with them on Saturday, and now every time I walk by, they wave and I mispronounce their names. I feel very popular.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The First Few Days

I arrived in Santo Domingo last Thursday afternoon in a group of 8 trainees. Normally all training groups travel together, but because our plans were so last minute, it took four groups and two days to get us all out of Miami. We were met as soon as we got off the plane by the Peace Corps Country Director and the Dominican Training Officer, and they whisked us through customs and the mayhem of the airport’s exit. We dragged our bags to a parking lot where a current volunteer met us with a turismo bus. While the driver loaded our suitcases, he commented to me, “Wow, you can really sweat.” And he was right. I’ve been a hot, sweaty mess ever since I arrived. I go to bed sweaty, and I wake up sweaty. In fact, I’m sweaty now. Anyway, we rode in the bus through typical developing world traffic, and thankfully, I only almost puked once before we arrived at a Catholic guest house where we spent the first night because it was too late to get us settled in with our host families. We joined a group of 30 or so trainees and ate delicious pineapple for a while before getting some health information, eating dinner, and going to bed.

On Friday after breakfast, we loaded up again and headed to Pantoja, a barrio about 30 minutes away. We went straight to Entrena, the training center here, and sat through more orientation, ate lunch, and were divided into temporary language groups. I spent the next four hours trying so hard to understand Spanish that at the end of class, I had a splitting headache and a rather disheartened feeling about my Spanish skills. But I didn’t have much time to reflect on that, because we immediately went to meet our host families. Because accommodations were arranged on such short notice, a few of the trainees, including me, ended up sharing homes. My housemate is Lexi, or Alejandra, and our host is Dona Maura. I should note that it is mango season right now, and Entrena is covered with mango trees. We were given permission to collect as many as we wanted. The recommended method is by throwing fallen green mangoes at the ripe ones, and earlier in the day, I had managed to knock down a huge but not quite ready one. When we met Dona Maura, she was very impressed with it, and showed it around to several other hosts who agreed that it was awesome. Then we set off with a couple other students and hosts on our way to Los Alcarrizos, the barrio where I’m living. On the way to our houses, we had our first experience with public transportation. The main forms are guaguas, or medium sized buses, and carros publicos, which are universally smashed up cars that are expected to “seat” seven people. While we waited for a suitable vehicle, Dona Maura decisively renamed me “Cari,” and then we crammed into a carro publico and rode to the entrance of the barrio. The car stopped at busy roundabout where we got out and continued on foot. We walked for what seemed like a very long time until the street got quieter and less chaotic. Finally, we arrived at our house which was shockingly nice. We were prepared for dysfunctional toilets and to need mosquito nets, and instead, we found clean tile floors, spacious bedrooms with air conditioning and window screens, and an inverter, which keeps most of the electricity going even when the power is out. We also have a nice, covered balcony where we spend a lot of time. Also different than expected is that our host lives alone. She has two children, but they live in the US. So where we were prepared to be mobbed by family and neighbors when we arrived, we instead only met one friend, the Spanish sister-in-law of our Dona’s son-in-law who is here on vacation. We ate a tasty dinner of mangu—mashed green plantains, chicken, and cucumbers and tomatoes in vinegar, which is pretty typical cuisine here. We’ve had it several times since. Dona Maura also served us fresh mango juice, and we made a big deal about how much we liked it, so now we drink it every day. After dinner, we settled into our rooms and I took my first bucket bath. I’m not very good at it. We’ll just leave it at that.

On Saturday morning, we walked with another trainee named Jacob and his dona, Fior, most of the way to the training center, and then crammed into another car for the final leg of the trip. I was pretty devastatingly sweaty when we arrived and continued sweating in a socially uncomfortable manner all day long. We only were at Entrena for a half-day health orientation, and then we walked back to the barrio in the 2:00 heat. Not long after we got back, a marauding group of trainees from our neighborhood showed up on the street. They were trying to find all the trainees in the area, and we joined their pack. It turns out that there are 12 of us around. We found everyone and asked a host mother for a suggestion on where to go hang out. She told us about a car wash that is pretty popular, and not having anything better to do, we went in search of it. After a juice stop at a grocery store, we found what we thought was the car wash. It was in the general area the woman had told us and had a little shop on the corner where a couple people bought beer. Then we all stood in the sidewalk and drank our juice and beer and watched people wash cars until we decided that we were definitely at the wrong place and continued down the sidewalk. Eventually, we found the correct car wash, which had a covered seating area with really loud music and dancing. We sat there for a while and bought flowers for our donas, and then we headed to our respective homes. Dinner was very good. My bucket bath was slightly better.

On Sunday, we spent the morning in the sitting under a shade tree at our Dona’s sister Australia’s house. Maura has fifteen siblings and is one of the younger ones, so Australia is in her late 60s or early 70s where Maura is probably in her late 50s. We watched a lot of anole lizards chase each other around and tried to practice our Spanish a bit. In the afternoon, we went back to the car wash as a group to celebrate the birthday of one of the girls. Some people danced, and we generally had a nice time getting to know each other more. Unfortunately, it started to pour about an hour after we got there, and we kind of got stuck there waiting for the rain to stop. We weren’t supposed to be out late, and because of the rain, it got dark early, so we eventually just gave up on waiting and ended up running home and getting soaked. The rain felt nice though because it made the air a little less humid, and the freshness lasted into Monday morning.

I should note that on Sunday, we had our first experience with Dominican cheese. We had breakfast sandwiches with thick slices of the plastic tasting fluorescent stuff, and I powered through it, but Lexi could only finish half, so we spent a lot of time trying to make it look like she had eaten more. Anyway, on Monday, and every day this week, the cheese has returned. We’re now very adept at discreetly peeling it off, wrapping it in napkins, and smuggling it out to dispose of on the way to school.

When we arrived at school on Monday, we went over some more general information, and then had a public transportation “lesson,” which consisted of us riding a guagua to our barrio and then getting into a carro public and taking off. Unfortunately, there were eight of us in my group, and only 6 could fit in the car, so the instructor and another trainee were in a different car. The instructor had told our driver where to take us, but it became evident that he didn’t know where he was going. At first, we thought he was just taking a different route, but after a bit, one of the Spanish speakers in our group started to question him and he admitted that he didn’t know what he was doing. The goal of the exercise was never explained to us, so we just had him drop us off on our street and then started walking back toward the school. We ran into our instructor and the other trainee a little later and all was well, but it didn’t really leave me brimming with confidence in my transportational skills. When we got back to the school, we were split up into our permanent language classes according to an interview we had on Friday. I’m in intermediate low, which I think is quite fair. I need to improve one level more to meet the language requirement for being an official volunteer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Eating Platanos, Jaywalking, and Not Going to the Beach...or What I am Doing in Miami

My Peace Corps experience has finally begun. I'm in Miami at Staging, the fancy word for sitting in a room for 8 hours and trying to pay attention as the room spins around you because you are a terrible packer and only managed to get one and a half hours of sleep, between 2:30 and 4 am, and that was many, many hours ago. Luckily, that was all yesterday, and I've had a chance to recover, because due to a little political volatility, I'm spending an extra day in Miami, but I'll get to that later.

I arrived in Miami yesterday, and pretty much immediately went into the afore mentioned meeting. The first 2 hours were occupied with an icebreaker game, and then we got down to brass tacks. There are 51 people in my training group. 15 are in Youth Development, 17 are in Municipal Development, and 19 people including me are in Protected Areas Management, which I will hereby refer to as "PAM."

Some of you may be wondering why I'm still in Miami. After all, wasn't I supposed to leave at 4 in the morning for Tegucigalpa? Why yes, I was, but there have been some major changes to my plans due to a certain coup in a certain Honduras. Here's what the new plan is: I learned on Monday afternoon that my training group is going to the Dominican Republic for roughly three weeks while things settle down a bit in Honduras. Yesterday, we received more details. While there was some political drama brewing for a while, the coup was unexpected and it puts everyone in an awkward position. It would send a mixed message if the US sent a crew of Peace Corps trainees to the country at the same time that they're saying the new government is illegal. They do still plan to send us, but they needed to wait a little while to maintain the PC's apolitical image. So within about 48 hours, they had to come up with a plan b. There is a training center in the Dominican Republic that was available, so we're all going there to work on our Spanish and do some general education about Honduras. Various Honduran PC staff will be flying over to join us. The plan is to stay there for about three weeks, but it may change. You'll just have to stay tuned. Because it was all so last minute, it's taking 4 flights to get all of us there. I leave tomorrow morning, and in the meantime, I'm being super lame. I slept in really late today and managed to miss all my fellow trainees. I'm at an airport hotel, so there's not much within walking distance. There is a Cuban restaurant across the street with delicious plantains and cafe con leche, and that's about as far as I've gone.

A few details about the Dominican Republic: we'll be living with host families in a suburb of Santo Domingo. We've been told its a little loud due to all the merengue music and dominoes. PC is actually using a contractor called Entrena Consulting, and I don't really know what that means, but there's some info about them at Guess I'll find out tomorrow!

I've done a poor job of telling people about this blog. If you're reading this and know people who might be interested in what I'm up to, please feel free to let them know the address. Speaking of addresses, I'm not sure what my mailing address is yet, cause I'm not going to be in Honduras for a while. When I figure it out, I'll post it. Until then, you'll just have to email me or post lots of comments.