Monumental Moments-- Spring 2013, Issue II
Monumental MomentsConstanza Excursion—CIEE Reaching for the Heights!
The weekend of March 8-10 provided students with quite a change from urban Santiago de los Caballeros. We piled into two buses and headed up, up, up the mountains of the Cordillera Central—high enough to see Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in all the Caribbean, off to the northwest—to the Valley of Constanza, where the highest-elevation city in the Caribbean lies surrounded by a patchwork quilt of colors. Up close, those colors are vast fields of strawberries, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, celery, broccoli, and other cool-weather vegetables, plus cultivated flowers of all kinds.
We ate a delicious lunch at our Hotel Alto Cerro before splitting up into two groups. The more adventurous of the two headed off with Ryan and a local guide to hike up the mountains beyond our hotel—they returned tired, but smiling widely over their accomplishment. Those who are not as fond of hiking enjoyed a walking tour of part of the largest flower gardens in the region with Lynne and one of the company´s engineers, although we couldn´t explore all seven levels, which would have taken days of travel up, down, and around the surrounding mountains. Afterward, we drove a little further so the students could explore the ruins of the Nueva Suiza Hotel, which was built under Trujillo´s orders in the 1950s as a super-deluxe hideaway for himself, his best buddies, and their mistresses.
Saturday, we all boarded what the Dominicans call “Jeep Safaris”—sturdy trucks with bench seats—to drive up the mountain to the tallest waterfalls in the Caribbean, Aguas Blancas. A new hiking trail was just constructed last semester by a Dominican Corps of Forestry Engineers. The views from up there were incredible! Then we hiked back down to the lower level for a snack and so that brave souls could jump into and swim in the frigid waters at the foot of the falls. That night, we all enjoyed a delicious BBQ and bonfire—with some smores, of course—behind the hotel. Sunday was a free day before heading back down to Santiago.
To Market, To Market: Day Trip to Dajabón and Monte Cristi
On Friday, March 22, all of our students enrolled in the “Dominican-Haitian Relations” class, plus all others who wished to come along—and most did!—headed northwest to the border region at Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, the towns on either side of the Dominican-Haitian border. Every Friday and Monday an event takes place that attracts thousands of people and millions of dollars—the “free market,” which isn´t really free, since only Haitians can cross over the bridge between the two republics (Dominicans and other foreigners must buy visas if they want to go over to the Haitian side) and Haitians must pay high customs taxes both on the products they bring to the D.R. to sell (mainly donated clothing, shoes, and purses that foreigners collect in clothing drives) and the desperately needed products that they buy on the Dominican side of the border to feed their hungry people. There´s an informative class about the region´s history and economy aboard the bus, but the most educational part of the trip is seeing the seething masses buying, selling, and moving precariously overloaded carts and wheelbarrows back and forth over the bridge—or carrying towering packages on their heads.
Afterward, we enjoyed a buffet lunch in Monte Cristi and a refreshing swim at one of the most secluded and beautiful beaches in the country, the Playa Detrás del Morro in the nearby national park.
Rural Work Retreat #2 April 5-7
Getting outside of your element is one of the most effective means to encourage growth, learning, and reflection. On the last weekend before final exams, half of our students volunteered to spend their time very much outside their normal element--doing hard labor in an extremely remote rural town called Dajao. The town was accessible only by taking a 4x4 vehicle or a motorcycle one hour into the mountains near the Haitian border. Working in collaboration with a local Peace Corps Volunteer couple, Scott and Meaghan, our service project involved building three latrine systems, one each in three of the town´s most needed areas. Some students spent the weekend digging out deep holes, and laying rock and mortar, while others mixed cement, bent rebar, sawed wood, and hammered throughout the day.
On the second day, we split into two separate teams to complete the remaining work, only to be met with torrential downpours all afternoon. Some students braved the rain and kept working despite the downfalls. It was a grueling, wet, and muddy way to spend the afternoon, but that night’s dinner and subsequent reflection and conversation time was nonetheless excellent.
Sunday morning, most of us woke up early to the tune of the roosters´ crowing. After downing hot chocolate, coffee, and bread for breakfast, we once again split up into two groups to finish the two remaining latrines. By mid-morning, we had made enough progress to wrap up the project. We packed ourselves into the bed of a Daihatsu pickup truck and bid adieu to our new friends in Dajao. The ride back included time to take a refreshing bath in a river before meeting the bus that took us back to Santiago.
Celebrating another Successful Semester with CIEE Liberal Arts
On Friday, April 12, CIEE Liberal Arts celebrated the ending of another successful semester with our obligatory Return to the U.S.A. Workshop for students, which deals with Reverse Culture Shock. Then everyone pitched in to finish preparations for our Fiesta de Despedida, attended by all our current students, some former students who were here visiting, our host family members, PUCMM professors and administrators, administrators from PUCMM´s Office of International Students, the university´s volunteer Estudiantes de Apoyo, our wonderful drivers… and of course, the local on-site staff and their families. Naysha (St. John Fisher College) and Douglas (Occidental College) were our gracious hosts, and student volunteers entertained us magnificently: Sarah Buente (University of Evansville) sang a delightful solo in Spanish, Dan (Hope College) played his ukulele and sang a lively number, and Hannah (George Washington University) surprised everyone with her super-dynamic modern-dance exhibition, paired with our CIEE-PUCMM Intern, José.
The entire “Dominican Dance and Folklore” class showed off what they´d learned over the semester, and Abi (Lewis & Clark College) put together a nostalgic presentation of photos from all the semester´s activities, set to music, of course. After dinner, everyone—students, host family members young and old alike, drivers, professors, staff—danced and danced. What a great way to celebrate both our individual and group successes, including all our new friendships!
Caribbean Connections: Folkloric Music and Dance
-- by Daniel Schriemer (Hope College)
It’s always good to have connections--this is one fact that’s been reinforced for me over and over this semester in the Dominican Republic. Thanks to our connections with the CIEE staff, some of my friends and I were able to obtain free tickets to an event at the Gran Teatro del Cibao, a presentation called “Caribbean Folkloric Music and Dance in the Era of Globalization.” The presentation featured individuals and groups from various countries demonstrating their unique music and dance in an unmistakably lively Caribbean fashion. I was, however, surprised by how the term “Caribbean” was used for this event. There were performers from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other countries traditionally considered to be Caribbean, but more peripheral areas such as Colombia and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico were also represented. I had no idea the Caribbean had such a wide cultural influence. My personal favorite part of the night was watching a folkloric dance group from right here in Santiago. Our dance professor from this semester, José Espinal, was one of the dancers, so it was that much more exciting for us. He’s got some incredible moves! The performance as a whole was very entertaining, and I’m glad that so many of us could go and experience it all for free!
How to Really Help Dominican Students Succeed Academically
—by Olivia Corya (Indiana University)
Here´s an abbreviated version of Olivia´s final assignment for her CIEE “Living and Learning in Santiago” class, which clearly shows how much she has come to understand and accept cultural difference during her immersion semester with CIEE Liberal Arts.)
I volunteered weekly at a home for orphaned children run by nuns, working with two teenaged girls. My overarching goal was to raise their self-esteem and motivate them to reach their full potential. With this in mind, I asked each of them to prepare a presentation about “What it’s like in the Dominican Republic,” and explained that the purpose of the assignment was to give them practice with public speaking and to share their culture with me…. A week later, they showed me a single typed piece of paper filled with economic and political facts about the Dominican Republic (in terms that the girls didn´t even understand) that one of the nuns had printed off the Internet for them.
The incident frustrated me. I put in a lot of effort coming up with ideas each week to motivate the girls and to teach them good work habits, and having the nun do their work for them defeated the purpose of both goals. But this incident did motivate me to redouble my efforts to understand their previous educational experiences—and my own.
I now understand that my frustration arose from a clash of cultural values rooted in the U.S. American value of individualism and the Dominican value of communitarianism. I am very much a product of a society where, from a very young age, citizens are taught to practically worship the institution of the individual. We are told that we can each pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve the American dream (which in itself is, of course, very individualistic), that we are each unique and should celebrate our individual identities, etc. Part of this high importance placed on individualism is the idea that in school and work, a person’s success should depend on the merit of his or her own efforts.
This is a completely different reality from the one in which the girls I tutored live. They were born in a communitarian society, where a person’s success depends as much on their relationships with other people as it does their own effort. Not only is helping one’s fellow students or coworkers accepted to a degree that looks like cheating to the untrained U.S. American eye, but this communitarian-based value is so strong that doing so is encouraged. People are supposed to help each other because it’s the “right thing to do,” just as in the U.S. the “right thing to do” in academic situations is to make everyone do their own work.
As a U.S. American, the value of individualism has been engrained within me since the day of my birth, and I do firmly believe in the benefits of doing one’s own work, thus I was upset that the girls were missing out on important lessons and growth opportunities by letting the nun do their work for them. Also, I am not yet advanced enough along the intercultural understanding spectrum to be able to completely shed my cultural biases, so there’s not much I can do about believing in the benefits of doing one’s own work. What has changed for me, however, since this incident occurred is my initial perception that the girls were being lazy and not taking their homework seriously. This wasn’t the case. They were simply doing their homework in the way their culture has taught them is appropriate. Understanding this cultural difference has taken away much of my initial frustration.
The incident also makes more sense when I think about it through the cultural literacy lens. I didn’t understand why a good person—a nun!—would be complicit in allowing the girls to slack off their homework assignment. Understanding that she was helping them because she thought it was the right thing to do makes me feel much more comfortable about my relationship with her, and shows me that she doesn’t disrespect me and the volunteer work I do, which is what I had feared.
The other cultural value that clashed in this incident relates to perceptions about authority. In the United States, we prize questioning authority, and in this country, they prize following it. This basic difference explains why the girls thought they were doing a great job by reading off statistics from an authoritative source, and why I thought they were doing an abysmal job by doing that exact thing. I hadn’t wanted them to tell me what experts said about the Dominican Republic—I wanted them to be the experts! I wanted them to reflect on their own experiences. I wanted them to think, to analyze, to create, and they had simply regurgitated.
Yet to the girls, what I had asked them to do seemed so ridiculous that they didn’t even know how to interpret it, and so they tweaked the assignment to fit what they were familiar with. To succeed in school here, they are asked to cite authoritative figures, not to think for themselves. It would be a silly embarrassment for them to “research” their country by simply reflecting on their own experiences! So instead, they did what normally impresses their teachers and earns them good grades, which is finding an official-looking source and presenting the information without adding unnecessary personal opinions, which would have just diminished the authority of their research.
The girls were not, as I initially assumed, trying to take a shortcut. I really believe they thought something along the lines of, “There’s no way she actually wants us to just say what we think about this country, because no one’s ever asked us to do anything like that before! We must not have understood her. We’ll just find out what important people say about this subject and do the project like we usually do school work.”
Understanding how mine and the girls’ cultural values regarding authority differ greatly eased my frustration with the incident.
My mistake was forgetting how different the U.S. American and Dominican educational systems are. A month ago, I believed the solution should have been for me to have more clearly explained the requirements and purpose of the assignment to the girls before setting them loose to do it. I now believe that that would have been a pretty poor solution. Since then I shaped my assignments to be simultaneously challenging for them and more familiar to them in format. Although I genuinely believe (and yes, I’m aware of my cultural bias here) that the Dominican educational system would be doing a great favor to its students if it prioritized individual work over doing work for each other and critical thought over regurgitating authorities’ thoughts, this system is not going to change any time soon, and in the meantime it is still the system these girls have to navigate in order to succeed. In their society, success isn’t based on individual merit the way it is in the U.S., thus encouraging them to work individually could actually hurt them! By relying on their friends and family to do their school work, they are essentially practicing for their real work, in which they will one day also need to rely on networking and personal relationships to succeed.
by Hannah Feintuch (George Washington University)
Santiago is called the City of Heart, la ciudad de Corazón, but before this weekend, I didn’t really feel that Santiago had all that much “heart.” Of course my host family and professors are incredibly nice, but it wasn’t until I stepped away from the neighborhood where I live and stepped onto the unpaved roads of a barrio called Cienfuegos that I felt it—warmth, community and neighborly love. Cienfuegos isn’t really where I expected to find it. The barrio is known to be one of the poorest and most unsafe areas in Santiago with high unemployment rates and a high number of less-educated residents. I wet for a class assignment, and I asked the maid in my house if she would be my guide. In most middle class families, it’s typical to have a worker who either lives in the house or apartment or comes daily to cook and clean. Carolina is 22, and even though works every day for my host mom, she’s really part of the family. She agreed to take a few of my friends and me to the barrio and to show us around the neighborhood where her real family lives.
It was amazing how quickly the landscape around us changed when the taxi dropped us off in Cienfuegos. Suddenly streets were unpaved, sewer water ran along the sides of the roads, and people were everywhere. I watched kids playing on parked motorcycles, “flying” kites made of plastic bags and string, and climbing trees. Houses here were no longer apartment buildings with underground car garages but small and dilapidated wooden and tin homes. The view from one of the highest points in the barrio was beautiful but included rising smoke from a nearby dump where trash is burnt. The scenery itself was a jolt for me, but what surprised me more was the people that I met.
It didn’t take long before we attracted the attention of some kids who promptly took our hands and told us they wanted to show us their houses. Not knowing what to do, we awkwardly followed. What would their parents say when a group of strangers showed up at their door with their six year old? The answer? “Come in! Please sit down.” Unlike anything I’ve experienced in the US, perfect strangers welcomed us into their homes. When we arrived at Carolina’s house, we were shown the same hospitality. Family members were sent running to buy us first Coke and cookies and then beer. Our cups were never even half empty before they were re-filled, and her family pulled up plastic chairs to ask us what we thought of the country. After chatting and dancing merengue (her brother challenged me to show off my moves), they arranged for a car to take us home—but only with the promise to return for a meal.
I wouldn’t have thought that I could feel so at home in a house lit by a bare bulb and surrounded by grazing chickens and lazy stray dogs. If I were hadn’t studied societal problems in the DR, I probably would have used this experience as motivation to try to make things better according to my standards. Unfortunately, now that I better understand the system, I realize that in the next two months there is nothing I can do to improve Cienfuegos. I cannot give them reliable electricity or running water or pave their roads. The things that I could give them—a flatscreen tv or internet may in fact do more harm than good. My gifts might ostracize the family from their community or put them at risk for crime. I realize that helping a community or family is complicated. So instead I’m trying to better myself-- to use the people I met there as inspiration to be warmer, friendlier and more open. To remember that my afternoon in Cienfuegos reminded me of how fortunate I am, not only to have a reliable roof over my head but also to have the opportunity to learn from people of different backgrounds –people who really and truly have heart.