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5 posts from February 2012


In the Begining of the New World



             So far in the Dominican Republic, I have had quite a few learning experiences but one of the most obvious came with a stomach bug that chose to nest in my digestive system a couple of weeks ago. Casey and I had decided to spend a romantic night together with a nice dinner in a little restaurant with live music. To my dismay, by the time we arrived at the restaurant I couldn’t bear to look at food and spent the evening carefully slurping broth from between the vegetables in my vegetable soup. My host mother insisted that I go to the emergency room (it was a Sunday and regular doctor offices were closed) but I quietly protested, thinking that the ER would cost me an arm and a leg. When I became feverish and was tormented by debilitating stomach cramps, her insistence grew into an order. I walked through the ER doors and within thirty minutes had spoken with a doctor, had my blood drawn for tests, had a stool sample analysis processing, and was all hooked up to an IV of painkillers and saline solution.  I was there for a little over two hours and walked out with a prescription and feeling much better, all for only $35 American (and that was at a private hospital.)  Note for the future: If you feel sick in the Dominican Republic, GO TO THE DOCTOR.


  I was afraid that my sickness was going to prevent me from the copay trip of the weekend to La Isabela, but fortunately I felt well enough to hold it together during the two hour drive to the site of the first Spanish city in the Americas. We folded ourselves into the tiny museum marveling at the beautiful Spanish and Taino artifacts from the site, all neatly hung and preserved in glass cases. Lynne hearded us out of the museum and guided us through the site as she narrated the history. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of La Isabela in the way of artifacts or buildings. La Isabela was abandoned after only three years of existence as Spanish conquistadors wasted away from dysentery due to that absence of a viable fresh water source, scorching heat, and salty ocean floods that devastated their crops. After abandonment, locals began to take stones from the site to construct their own houses and it wasn’t until the 1950’s, under the rule of Trujillo, 091
that some German archeologists showed interest in the site. Unfortunately, Trujillo ordered a man to “clean up the site” before excavation and thus hundreds of years history were bulldozed into the ocean.  Most of what is left consists of rectangular pebble foundations on dry red earth. Christopher Columbus’ home is the best preserved of the buildings with some of the wall remnants reaching three feet in height  and protected from the elements by a palm hut which giving it a sort of tiki shack appearance. Even without the actual ruins, it was haunting to walk across the same earth where the Spanish had begun to settle, where so many men had died, where the Americas as we know them began. There is one skeleton of a deceased Spaniard preserved and uncovered from his blanket of dirt. It was here that Lynne told us the famous ghost story of La Isabella. Staring down at what remained of his corpse, I wondered who this man was, what he had seen, and what it was like to die of horrible illness in a foreign land, without his family in the new world.  It was at this time, that Lynne chose to point out in front of the group the similarity between my and the Spaniards’ intestinal conditions. My cheeks reddened from the heat and vague embarrassment, we drank fresh squeezed lime juice from a little stand and continued on.

          Walk on water
During the course of the day, we made it to two beaches. The first was calm and blue with a reef not far out which people trampled over looking like Jesus walking on the water. 

We splashed around a bit but my stomach was not up to too much physical activity and I soon retired to my towel and book on the hot, white sand shore while the others played. For lunch they ate fresh fish roasted over a fire with other traditional Dominican fare while I nibbled on saltines, too nauseous to look at food.

                The next beach was harsher, rockier, and unfortunately for those students who chose to ride the waves, plagued with sea urchins. I sat on the shore with my towel, tempted to join the others in the cool waves but I settled instead on climbing across some of the rocks that built a
 platform into the ocean. Casey and the others returned from their seafaring adventure goose bumped and high on endorphins and I was momentarily jealous until we found the countless sea urchin spines buried deep of the flesh of their toes, their fingers and souls of their feet. We tried with tweezers to remove them but sea urchin spines are brittle and break with the slightest hint of pressure. We loaded up onto the guagua tired, tan, and bleeding. It was a good day and one that none of us are likely to soon forget.

  418103_10150665447548223_722043222_10885212_431674555_n Urchin


My Community Service Experience: Camboya Guardaria

Written by Jordan G., Spelman University

babies at Camboya's guarderiaI was so nervous!!! It was my first time riding in the concho alone and I was afraid I would get lost on my way there, but everything ran smoothly. Upon arrival, the women welcomed me with open arms. They introduced themselves to me all with smiling faces. It was nap time when I got there so all the children were sleeping. This gave me the opportunity to talk with the women working at the daycare more. They explained to me that some of the children were only fed when at the daycare then I asked more questions about the Free Trade Zone.

At first they thought I was Haitian but when I told them I was from the United States they said oh mucho dinero! I wish! They also said they wished more students from PUCMM would come and volunteer with the children. They said, here, the rich stay with the rich, and the poor stay with the poor. After a short conversation, I visited with the babies!!! :) They were all so precious and wanting to be loved and held. I loved it. I also sang songs with the one year olds. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and this one little girl was singing along!!  After the older children got up, I helped with snacks and hygiene a little before I had to leave. It was sooooo fun and I can wait until next week!



Giving Back: Weekend Work Retreat



Last weekend was our first opportunity for volunteer work here in the DR. We all loaded up into the guagua at 11am and drove up the winding mountain roads through the forest to La Solapa. The drive was amazing. We could see the steep mountainsides covered in green. It reminded me of my native Oregon but the vegetation was large and jungle like.  My eyes were glued to the outside as a mix of reggae and dance remixes pounded through the bus speakers. We passed through a few small towns and after an hour and a half of driving, ended in the warm embrace of La Solapa.

We followed a man down the streets smelling the rotten milk aroma of drying cocoa, La Solapa’s main industry. We met some men of town in a rundown building, most of us having little experience with manual labor needed help and guidance. The townspeople were nice enough to donate their time to help us gringos. We ate a big lunch prepared by some of the women of La Solapa and started organizing materials with full bellies. We carried large sheets of zinc and piles of wood across the street to what was to become our home base and work site. The wood had to be cut down to its specified sizes and we, as the laborers, started sawing. I was a theater kid in high school and have done my fair share of set construction, but I had never realized what an advantage an electric saw gives you. If I have learned nothing else, I now know that sawing is hard. Most of us struggled to try to make a nitch, saw blades flailing about, Dominicans watching with shaking heads. We got better with time and I’m happy to report that we all returned with fingers and limbs intact. The goal for that day was to build our first latrine, an example, mostly constructed by Ryan and the men. While some of us helped to accomplish this, others found other things to keep themselves occupied, mainly the herd of children that seemed to be forming.  Kids came and sat in the white plastic chairs that had held us through our lunch feast, watching us curiously. They talked and pointed and played and eventually the cuteness overwhelmed us and we gave in and became their clowns, their hair dressing mannequins, their trees to climb up.


Darkness came before the first latrine could be completed so we retired to dinner, donning our warmer and more covering clothes along with an extra layer of insect repellant. We ate another feast, this time spaghetti and spent the evening playing Werewolves, an intricate role playing card game that my boyfriend learned at school.  We talked and laughed but knew that soon the sun would rise and we would have to meet it to finish all of the work that lay ahead.  We returned to our assigned houses, there were six girls in my house, four beds, two parents, one non flushing toilet, two very large dead spiders, one even larger live and missing spider, and infinite gaps in the wall boards.  I have a horrible fear of spiders, as did most of the girls in my house. I tried to lollygag about before getting into the bed which was pushed up against a wall. Above the headboard, I could see the remains of a spider hanging crippled and twisted in its web. I did not want to be anywhere near the walls for fear of a midnight visit. Unfortunately, my bedmate was on to me and herded me in to my worst fear. I turned on the too soft mattress and felt a million tickles, any of which could have been our missing spider friend. I pulled the covers over my head and eventually slept in my spider free shelter.


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Morning came early that day. We woke up a little before 7 to eat our breakfast and throw on our work clothes. Our temporary host mother prepared us coffee (the coffee here is amazing, black, strong, lots of sugar) hotdog buns, cheese and traditional hot chocolate. Although the breakfast food itself was boring and plain, the hot chocolate was delicious. It was thick, almost like rice pudding and filled you up with a single cup. We arrived at the work site at 7:30 and began to work while the over sleeping boys watched us as they ate their breakfast.

We eventually organized ourselves into groups, taking on single tasks instead of the variety. I said I could mix concrete and ended up in the group that not only mixed the concrete, but laid the entire foundations for the latrines. By some strange twist of fate, I also ended up with the instructions in my hands which meant that I got to try to direct the crew of not only American students who knew nothing about construction, but of local Dominicans who THOUGHT they knew everything about construction.  The directions were confusing and we continually had to call Ryan over for help. Once we had them figu 403952_10150731616133782_781033781_12639729_609710285_nred out, I realized that we had begun to put the wire frame together incorrectly and it needed to be redone. The locals protested and ignored me and eventually I had to get Ryan to come back and work things out. Sometimes it’s hard to be heard as a woman but here in this machismo culture, it is sometimes damn near impossible. After we worked out all the kinks, assembly went by quickly. We taught others how to build the wire frames and moved from house to house constructing the latrine foundations. My back and arms burned from the sun and mixing concrete, but this was one of the proudest moments of my life so far. Although I will probably never use my foundation building skills again, I was so proud to know that I had learned something and was so happy to get to see the results of what I and the others had done.

We finished 7 latrines that day, definite cause for celebration. We drank celebratory Presidents and ate dinner. Shortly after dinner, Ryan came in with a cigar hanging from his lips asking if we wanted to try some “Mamajuana”   which to me sounded like another similar word with his cigar speech impediment. Mamajuana is a Dominican drink which consist of putting herbs into a jar with rum and letting it soak. I found out that night that it is completely delicious and am planning to invest in a premade herb jar to recreate the drink when I return to the states. There was an apagone (power outage) that night and we played Werewolves by candlelight. We went to bed early, tired and sore.

I was sad  to leave La Solapa but we had to the next day. Our host mother made us breakfast and our host brother gave us rides on the donkey. I, never having ridden a horse before, was cautious and slightly nervous but managed to make one loop around the yard before jumping down. The kids played baseball and climbed into our arms as we took a million photos. I fell in love with the campo during those days, with the kids, with the sickly stray dogs, with the simplicity and beauty.  It’s farfetched to think that I will ever see it again, but it something that I will remember always. 


One Day at a Time


    It’s been almost a month since we arrived here, delirious and crinkled from our long flights. I came here with my boyfriend Casey, a day before the program actually started. We were lucky, as far as the west coasters go we had a short flight, only thirteen hours. Others from the Pacific side had twenty- some hour flights.  Since we arrived early, we had the privilege of meeting up with Lynne, Ryan and Melba who run the CIEE Santiago program and accompanying them to the airport to meet our fellow students as they arrived. We helped them load their bags into the guagua (a Dominican term for bus) and headed back to the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM) campus. It was here that we met our prospective host families.  We didn’t receive descriptions of our families before arrival; our imaginations ran wild inventing our Santiago living situations. Surely our homes would look like the ones on the Christian Children Fund’s commercials, dirt floors and zinc roofs, shoeless children running in the streets.  We deboarded the guagua and followed the leaders, taking blind steps to our new lives and unsure what to expect.  The herd of host mothers rushed toward us as we turned a corner, embracing us and covering our cheeks in lipstick kisses. My host mother is a 49 year old single mom who is the definition of a strong woman. She is fun and outgoing and I couldn’t be happier with my placement.  We all ate a lasagna lunch together and listened to some speakers, then our mothers helped us stuff our things into their cars and drove us to our new homes, which are all beautiful, far nicer than any apartment I have had in the US.

    The following week was spent largely in orientation meetings with the CIEE directors. We learned of Dominican culture and customs, what to expect from our host families, from the university, from CIEE and from ourselves.  We discussed the differences between American and Dominican society, everything from politics to dress and started to learn how to get along in this big city on a little island. Having the directors and the Estudiantes de Apollo (a student group that helps guide us U.S Americanos through our time at PUCMM) makes the transition from the US to the DR much easier. Everyone is very warm, friendly and helpful. They are there to answer any questions we may have from cultural norms to which restaurants are the yummiest.



  For that weekend, we traveled to the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo. The city was absolutely beautiful. It was obviously very European influenced and had amazing, history, food, music (from what we heard) and art. Lynne, our CIEE director, used to run historical tours through the city and she gave us a four star tour of some of the main sites including one of the first catholic churches in the Americas. After the tour, we had free time for lunch and a little exploration. Casey, David (another student) and I ate at a little Italian restaurant in the sun and drank glasses of chilled red wine. The city was a hot and sticky but still beautiful. You could look out and see the ships on the Rio Osama. After passing a few hours in the city, we drove to a couple of sugar plantation ruins (now declared a world heritage site by UNESCO) and learned a little about the history of sugar and slaves in the Dominican Republic. It was very informative but also very tragic. I, myself, from Oregon have never been to a slave plantation site and it was almost too much. Seeing the enormous holes that used to hold the boiling pots sugar and the passages below where the slaves were chained to stoke the fire was shocking. I walked down through the tunnels where the unfortunates once stood and saw how little space there would have been between their bodies and the flames. Lynne guided us through it all and told us of the atrocities and the resolutions. It was chilling to stand on the ground where such horrors had taken place but it was also one of the most educational experiences I can remember.

    We started classes that Tuesday. We would have begun Monday but the Dominican government took a cue from the US and decided to move Dia de los Reyes to Monday instead of Friday to stimulate shopping.  As international students we have a longer add/ drop period than other students at PCUMM and have a whole two weeks to try out any classes that catch our eye. International students must take a Spanish placement test which determines which Spanish class you take as well as whether you can take direct enrollment classes with Dominican Students. Lynne, however will fight for those students who didn’t place high enough if they are really interested in direct enrollment.  So far, the professors have been understanding with our slow broken Spanish responses and are always checking in to make sure that students understand them.  I am taking an ESL (English as a second language) course after which, I will be certified to teach English in the DR. With the courses and certifications I’m earning along with all of the volunteer opportunities offered here, my resume is going to look pretty impressive.

    There are so many trips through CIEE. The weekend before last we took a trip to the remote Playa Ensenada, a beach that seems to be mostly visited by locals. The water was that unbelievable blue color that appears mostly on postcards and travel commercials. The coast was lined with tiny huts, people inside slaving away and making delicious seafood concoctions. The scent was undeniably mouthwatering and wound its way through the salty ocean air. Casey and I, hungry after the bus ride and my breakfastless morning, couldn't resist. I ordered a lobster. Casey ordered shrimp and some stew that the woman was preparing. We sat on the beach sipping Presidentes (the national beer) and waiting with our growling bellies. It must have taken half an hour for the food to come out and when it did, we had a feast. There must have been some miscommunication for it was way more than we had ever intended to order. We invited the other hungry Americans over to our table to reap the benefits of our mistake. Between what must have been 8 of us, we couldn't finish everything. I was afraid to look at our bill. It was much more than we had intended to spend, but for under $50 (US) we got 2 lobsters, a shrimp dish, seafood stew, beans and rice and some other dish that involved squid. It was actually quite the deal.Beach

    After lunch, we boarded boats and took a knuckle whiting boat ride across the choppy water. The driver, no thoughts of slowing, conducted us over the waves, the water splashing up into our faces. Everyone was huddled together, thinking of worse case scenarios. Some of us laughed, other screamed, others clenched their eye lids together tightly to black out the horror that was sure to befall us. We arrived safely at our destination which was, I'm pretty sure, the model for every comic strip desert island. The small sandbar was probably about 100m long and held only a couple little huts for snorkel buffs to store their things. We all applied our snorkel paraphernalia and hopped in. There was a small beautiful reef right off the shore and we swam for a bit in the choppy water chasing the strange, brightly colored fish. However, my cheap La Sirena (Dominican Wal-Mart equivalent) snorkel allowed the waves to penetrate and I soon got my fill of swallowing the salty seawater and returned to the warm sand for a sunbath. Other students played in the sand for a while before we boarded the boats to return to the mainland.  We took a quick detour down a windy path through a forest of mangroves. It was tranquil and beautiful, my first time seeing mangroves.  We drove back to Santiago, tired and sandy.

                So far, this experience has been absolutely amazing. I’m missing my family back home but am getting far more Skype time than I had expected since I’m fortunate enough to live with a family who has internet access.  I’m learning a lot and though I am doing fairly well communicating with my family and professors, I can’t wait for my brain to click into that “Spanish mode” that Lynne keeps talking about. I’m beginning to feel at home here in Santiago, I’m beginning to make sense out of the winding maze of streets and am learning more and more how to use the public transportation. I’m finding the cool hang out spots around the city like SoHo, a bar on the rooftop of a mall that hosts Lunes de Jazz which is great for people like me who prefer a relaxed atmosphere to the heart thumping beat of the discotecas. Even outside of the dance clubs, it seems impossible to escape the dance music. Every bar, restaurant and Dominican seem to thrive on the beat. I ‘m fairly certain that I have yet to pass a day here in Santiago without hearing “I’m Sexy and I Know it.” It seems that here in the Dominican, everyone is born knowing how to dance. It’s in their blood, in their music. With a few tastes of the rum here, anyone can fall victim to the illusion that they too can dance but upon sobriety the fact is, I can’t. I’m in a dance class now, trying to acquire at least a little of that Dominican suaveness. My goal is get myself out there, it’s hard being in a place that you have never seen in the midst of people you have never known and who don’t speak the same language. It’s hard to get out of the so called “American bubble.” I feel close to the people in our CIEE group simply because they too speak English (not that they aren’t also awesome.) The point of this trip is to learn and submerge myself in a different culture but to that I have to swallow my fear and my pride and take risks and jump in. I know that next four months are going to change me and I’m excited to see the person I am when I leave. 



How Time Flies

Orientation @ Casa Club, Jarabacoa

It's hard to believe an entire month has passed since our spring semester started.  I recently took over the position as the Resident Coordinator for CIEE Santiago Liberal Arts, and have found the months rapidly passing by.  I heard this sentiment repeated by our students as they reflected on their first month in the country in last week's final orientation activity.

It is my sincerest hope that the next three months are full of the most impactful and positive traveling experiences that these our students have had in their lives.  With our new list of 25 Retos (Challenges) along with the various co-pay trips, rural work retreats, and the classic three-day excursions, I'm positive the students participating in this semester abroad will have a chance to get their fill of all the Dominican Republic has to offer.  As a former CIEE participant, I personally know that one of the most unexpected challenges can be finding time for one's self amidst the hustle and bustle of Caribbean life.  As the moments pass by, I encourage all to step back and take in their surroundings and appreciate the remarkable vibrance of island life.  Here's to an eye-opening, reflection-filled semester!