there was lots of excitement combined with both nervous and joyous smiles when
the newly-arrived students for fall semester 2013´s Liberal Arts program at
PUCMM in Santiago de los Caballeros met their host families on Tuesday, August
20th… but by the next morning, most were happily chatting about the warm
acceptance by their new families.
We spent the first day of orientation up in the mountains of Jarabacoa at Rancho Baiguate, where half a dozen of PUCMM´s Estudiantes de Apoyo (a volunteer support group) and Director of International Students met us. Throughout the morning and early afternoon--with a lunch break to enjoy some delicious Dominican foods--students learned how to keep safe and healthy in the Caribbean tropics, basic tips to combat culture shock and cultural differences between Dominicans and U.S. Americans, and how to develop good relationships with their host families. Afterwards, students enjoyed a dip in the swimming pool, explored the eco-trails, and enjoyed the playground equipment.
Throughout the week of orientation, students got to exchange U.S. dollars for pesos, buy a cell phone, climb up the steps of the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, got to know firsthand the City of Santiago, how to use public transportation, dance the basic steps of merengue, bachata, and salsa… and so much more! There were two more extensive sessions on cultural adaptation, an-depth overview of the classes available this fall and how former students had ranked them, a presentation explaining all of the extra-curricular CIEE activities planned for the semester, a tour of the campus, and a day trip to the Capital, where students had an historical walking tour of the Colonial Zone and visited the ruins of one of the earliest sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. Of course, orientation also covers those “must do” things like taking language-level exams and registering for classes. Wednesday, August 28th was a free day, and the following day classes began at PUCMM.
Every semester students vote on which two from a list of 20 or so different Co-Pay Trips they´d like to make—these trips are to places of historical, ecological, or cultural interest that are nearly impossible to get to without private transportation. CIEE pays for the transportation and any guiding or entrance fees, and students bring or buy their own food and beverages. For the first Co-Pay Trip this semester—for which we also invite the Estudiantes de Apoyo and PUCMM professors who work with our students—the students chose Playa Ensenada and Cayo Arena.In an isolated region of the northwestern coast, this beach, where you rarely find any tourists, is ringed by mangrove swamps that are home to protected manatees and the occasional school of dolphins. The boat ride to snorkel off Cayo Arena—a small, reef-encircled strip of sand that rises (barely) above the waves—costs extra, but most of the students chose to snorkel there and were glad that they did, for it is an amazing experience.
Rural Weekend Work Retreat (September 20-22)
This semester’s volunteer rural retreat took to us back to the beloved town of La Solapa, nestled in the hills of the province of Altamira. Over the past two years, CIEE student groups have served the residents of La Solapa by working alongside Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) on projects related to hygiene and potable water. The decision for this semester’s project (and every semester) was up to the community members to decide. The community association decided that their small rented pharmacy should be moved to a new location, where they had been given land on which our students and community members could construct a new building together. This met a major need—reducing the cost of maintaining an inexpensive supply of medicine for local residents.
Our weekend began with a brief introduction to the community members, then a tour of the community, hiking through a woodsy trail to visit the first aqueduct project that CIEE students built in 2012. That evening we enjoyed some hearty country cooking: fresh vegetables, plantains, salami, fried eggs, and fried cheese!
On Saturday the construction commenced bright and early at 8:00 a.m., as some students cut out the foundation from the hard packed earth, and others sawed steel rebar to be used in the reinforced-concrete base of the building. Once the perimeter trench was finished, the rebar was placed, and it was time for the mezcla (prepared wet cement mix) to be laid. Soon thereafter we began laying cinder blocks—the primary construction material in the D.R. It only took a few moments for us to realize how surprisingly difficult block laying can be…at first we struggled to get enough mortar, then failed to set the blocks level, then were told we were wasting too much cement. After enough hiccups in the process, we left much of the block laying to the local experts and focused our group’s attention on preparing the cement mixture. Suffice it to say, we all came away with a newfound appreciation for the painstaking process of cement construction. After sunset we cleaned up, ate another hearty starch-filled dinner, and then walked under the moonlight to the town’s discoteca to celebrate after a hard day’s work. We danced away as the electricity came in starts and spurts; when the power went fully out, the disco owner fired up his 4x4 truck and blasted bachata rhythms from his vehicle’s radio to keep the party rocking.On Sunday morning we continued to assist in the building process. We wrapped it up at midday and joined together with the locals and PCVs who had housed us and gobbled up some delicious sancocho—a Dominican stew chock full of tuberous vegetables, plantains, chicken, and squash, all served over white rice with plenty of ripe avocado. Oh, and don’t forget the hot sauce! After eating and the hard day’s work, nearly all the students slept throughout the entire ride back to Santiago.
One-Month-in-the-Country Meeting (September 23)
By the time students have been in Santiago for a month, most are starting to settle in and feel far more comfortable than when they first arrived—but it´s also when the “honeymoon period” wears off and a few students begin to have trouble accepting some of the inevitable socio-cultural adjustments that must be made. To deal with the problems that some students may be experiencing, we hold this two-hour meeting every semester, where students are broken into small groups, each of which is assigned one of the common situations that may be problematical. They prepare short skits and act out the situations, which are catalysts for an interactive discussion about each of the topics. It´s a fun meeting and also very cathartic.
The Hermanas Mirabal are not only heroines in the Dominican Republic, but around the world. The memory of Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal´s fight for a democratic government, as well as the memory of their bloody assassination on November 25, 1960, by orders of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, are honored every year on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. CIEE took our students to tour the museum just outside Salcedo that is dedicated to them and where their tombs are, as well as to the home where they grew up in the tiny pueblo of Ojos de Agua. Today, there is a park across the street commemorating their lives and their deaths, and a brand new ecological walk. Dedé Mirabal lives there to this day, the only surviving Mirabal sister—she raised her own son and all of her sisters´ children. Normally she is available to speak with our students about her life and that of her sisters; unfortunately, this semester she was out of town.
CIEE Co-Pay Trip #2: Río Gurabo (October 4)
After a 45-minute hike up the Gurabo River, we arrived at the site known as Charco de los Indios—a series of enchanting natural pools descending from small rapids , dominated by the ruins of a giant, 50-feet-high sculpture in the background. This Cara Gigantesca (Giant Face) carved out of the side of a mountain is believed to be the only monumental artifact left by the indigenous population anywhere in the Caribbean. Students swam in the pools, explored the canyon, climbed to the statue’s head, and—before heading back downstream—sat by the pools to enjoy a picnic lunch. On our way back to Santiago, we stopped to unearth marine fossils from the hilly roadside, evidence of prehistoric geological activity.
We also stopped to tour a casabe factory, where bitter yucca root is processed and turned into the round tortilla-like bread that was a staple in the diet of the pre-Columbian indigenous population and is still enjoyed to this day!
REFRESHING! Three-day Excursion to the Valley of Constanza (October 11-13)
August in the Dominican Republic is hot, and September is even hotter. Temperatures in the low to mid-90s with high humidity feel good at first, but after five solid weeks of it, students who are accustomed to North American autumns are ready for the cool mountain nights and mornings in Constanza, the highest altitude city in the Caribbean. You know you´re no longer in Santiago when the bus climbs up, up, up the narrow serpentine road, with misty views of the Cibao Valley far below. Then suddenly (well, an hour or so later) the bus climbs one last ridge and you are surrounded by myriad cloud-wrapped peaks that include Pico Duarte, which at over 10,000 feet is the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. Then we descend a bit into a circular green valley that is also surrounded by mountain peaks—the Valley of Constanza, formed millions of years ago by a giant meteor strike. Most of the valley´s color in late September comes from uncountable row after row of giant blue-green cabbages that spread upwards from the valley floor. We stay at the Alto Cerro (“High Land”) Hotel, and students opted on Friday afternoon to hike to one of the tallest peaks in the valley of Constanza, a site in which a monument has been erected to the Divino Niño (Baby Jesus). Nature blessed us with a beautiful rainbow--and then a downpour of rain for the hike down the mountain.
Saturday we awoke to a delicious buffet breakfast, then we all rode in Safari trucks, this time up into the green pine forest surrounding Aguas Blancas, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean. (Yes, this whole weekend was filled with record heights!) Some of the students were intrepid enough to brave swimming in the frigid waters swirling beneath the falls. That night, there was a BBQ and bonfire—complete with s’mores! Sunday morning was free time that started out with another buffet breakfast and activity choices that included horseback riding, a ride to the town´s vegetable and flea markets, a paragliding trip taking off from a nearby peak and descending into the valley of Constanza (for the adrenaline junkies among us), sleeping in, or doing homework. Then it was back to the heat of the lowlands after lunch, but somehow the heat always seems easier to take after a refreshing weekend in the mountains.