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.
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.