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.


  1. Hi Cari!

    Sounds like you are having quite the time. I can't wait to hear more. I'm sure you will pick up the Spanish quickly.

    We missed you on the 4th! I hope Christy told you all about losing Michael out of the mule during the parade. It wasn't the same without you there.

    Love ya, Aunt Amy (and the rest)

  2. CARA! It sounds like you are having a wonderful and trying time :-) I think it is amazing you are doing this! Every social work job I want in Denver requires the ability to speak spanish... so maybe I will come live with you for a while ;-). you were GREATLY missed over the 4th!!!!!

    I love you! Eat a mango for me!

  3. you should impress dona maura with your mango pancake making skills :)

    and i like that you sweat so much, so keep up the good work!


  4. Aunt Amy, nice to hear from you! I'm glad Michael survived the parade! I was so sad I couldn't be there.

    Liz, if you decide to study Spanish, might I suggest you doing it somewhere other than the Dominican Republic? They say that if you can learn Spanish hear, you can learn it anywhere. I think it's safe to say that I cannot learn Spanish anywhere. I really feel that I have at best stagnated and at worst, regressed in my Spanish-speaking abilities. Maybe we can both go to remedial Spanish school in Honduras. I missed you on the fourth too.

    And regarding my mango eating skillz, Dona Maura set a big tub of cut up mangoes by us at dinner on Friday, and I couldn't stop eating them cause they were so incredibly good, and then I pooped all Saturday. I think it was worth it, though.

    Cassie, I've begun to acclimatize, which means I only need to drink 3+ liters of water each day rather than the 5+ of last week. It could just be that it hasn't been as hot though. I can't even tell anymore.

    Thanks for all the comments! They make me so happy! Keep them coming.