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11/22/2014

The O'Rourke's Adventures in the DR

 My parents arrived in Santiago on Thursday! It was such a thrill picking them up at the airport. I got to introduce them to my trusted taxi driver and good friend Rafeal. I still cannot believe they are here. I took them for a tour of the University and had a tasty Dominican dinner with them right down the street.

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Friday morning we got up bright and early to make our way to Las Galeras, a part of the Samaná peninsula. We piled into a van and started our journey. The drive is beautiful as we traveled through farm lands and a plethora of small towns. It was definitely a great way to see the island. This van took us to the city of Samaná and from there we had to catch public transport to Las Galeras. I ran and got lunch from a Comedor before we hoisted ourselves onto the back of a truck to make the second leg of our journey. Along the drive we picked up many Dominicans with all the goods they were transporting. I was so proud to see my parents enjoying an authentic Dominican experience.

On our dive up the twisty roads we passed through a majestic arch of trees that seemed to continue for miles. The road was covered by an interlaced canopy that created a natural tunnel.

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We passed a car that gave a public announcement about preventing violence against women. One of the men in the back of the truck asked me if I had heard it and told me how important it was to treat women well. I told him I have been volunteering for an organization in Santiago that works to prevent violence against women. He took my hand and looked into my eyes and thanked me. His eyes started to tear us and my heart was warmed for the rest of the day from that powerful connection.

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We arrived at our striking hotel that afternoon. We brought our things to a delightful room with an ocean view. Before we knew it we were out in the ocean looking back at the striking plantation style architecture behind us and the aquamarine Atlantic Ocean in front.

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The next morning we took a boat to Playa Rincón which is the most beautiful beach on the island. The entire beach spans about 3km. When we arrived that morning we were the only people on the beach. There was a fish shack and small restaurant there but due to the difficulty of accessing the beach, even when more people arrived it continued to be pretty quiet.

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We enjoyed snorkeling, wading in the clear water, walking the beach and of course a delicious fish lunch. We got to try to traditional prescado de coco, fish with coconut, which is one of the dishes Samaná is famous for. Our meal was accompanied my fresh pina coladas served to us in the pineapple.

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Sunday we had a lazy day. We slept in and walked over to Playita which is only 10 minutes from the hotel. Since it was Sunday there were a lot of locals at the beach. 

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 Although Rincón was gorgeous, Playita has a wonderful open view of the ocean and in my opinion was more authentic. We each got coconuts to drink and eat, a treat my mom hadn’t had since she was in Jamaica in her 20’s and something I don’t think my dad has ever tried.  I had such a blast showing them things I had tried and what I have learned during my time here.

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 I was sad to leave the following day but I didn’t think I could miss my dance class on Tuesday. We started learning Salsa and, to say the least, I have a lot to learn.

My parents explored the Samaná peninsula for a few more days and made their way back to Santiago on Thursday afternoon. Thursday night we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal with my host family. My host mom made all my favorite things! Rice with garbanzo means, berenjena (eggplant) cooked with her special recipe, aguacate (avocado), platino maduro (ripe sautéed plantains, my mom’s favorite), casabe, veggies, and jugo de chinola (passion fruit juice). I love my host mom’s cooking and my parents did too. We were all stuffed after a non-traditionally big Dominican dinner.

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I had such a blast introducing my families. They got along so well and we shared many laughs. My host mom told me later that she felt as if there was no language barrier at all and that she is sure that if my mom lived closer, they would be best of friends. It was a truly heartwarming experience.

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The next morning my parents met up with me bright and early to go on an excursion with CIEE to Dajabón and Montecristi. I intentionally snagged a spot on the bus close to Ryan and Lynne so my parents could hear about their stories in the DR and their extensive knowledge about the history and culture.

Dajabón is a town in northwestern Dominican Republic that borders Haiti. Every Monday and Friday, the governments open the boarder to let thousands of Haitians into Dajabón to sell their goods in the market. Dajabón alone is actually the Dominican Republic’s third top source of income (next to tourism and remesas, the money sent to the DR from families in the US and other countries).

The market place is packed and filled with vendors and buyers. You have to be alert as people carting their goods in wheelbarrows and motorcycles wiz past you every second. I must admit, I was wondering how my parents would deal with this craziness because at first I was pretty overwhelmed. I was yet again pleasantly surprised by my parent’s adventurous attitudes and ability to adapt so quickly. We explored this colorful and kinetic flea market and scored some great deals. Lynne came out with 7 pair of Birkenstocks for under $40US and Ryan found some great cookware and some dock martins. The prices were unbeatable but the experience was priceless

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We all grabbed lunch in Montecristi where my parents had a chance to meet lots of my friends from the program. The little restaurant we ate at happened to be an anti-Trujillo meeting place back in the day! For those of you who do not know, Trujillo was an oppressive dictator in the DR for 30 years (1930-1961). Before the 1950s Montecristi was the most profitable port in the country until Trujillo closed it due to the groups conspiring against him in the area.

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After lunch we drove along the seaside and arrived at a virgin beach. Due to the dry climate in this area the beach was different than most I have seen on the island. The beach was boarded by stunning rocky cliffs the glowed as the sun set behind them. We enjoyed wading in the water and my parents found some unique rocks along the shoreline.

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That night I took my parents out to one of my favorite restaurants, Satay. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and my dad was happy to smoke a Dominican cigar, designed by one of my friends, after his meal. I was pleasantly surprised when my parents told me they wanted to go to a club to see the traditional dancing I talk about so fondly. I took my parents to Lovera, a club with música tipica that is very local. We were definitely the only gringos in the club. After a few drinks my parents were willing to take a stab at some dancing. My dad caught onto the merengue in no time and my mom followed suit. We had a blast and laughed the night away.

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Saturday I took my parents around to see the city of Santiago. Of course, we went to the monument. The view is always spectacular because you can see the entire valley that the city is situated in. We actually went up to the top of the monument, which I had never done before! Little did I know, there is a museum that explains the history of the restoration as you climb up to the top. The highest level has intricate costumes from Carnival and an impressive view of the city.

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After our sightseeing and history lesson at the monument we went to Centro Leon, one of the most well knows museums on the island. We ate a delicious lunch in the restaurant there and went to a local artisan fair where my mom and I got some fabulous earrings made from recycled bottle caps! After the fair we explored the museum. We were fascinated by the birds in the aviary as well as the ancient trees all around the grounds. We even got to eat some tamarind from some fallen seedpods. Inside the museum we explored the anthropological exhibit as well as two impressive art exhibits. For the size of the museum we were so impressed by the quality and diversity of the art there.

That night we enjoyed another delicious dinner and then went to a tabaqueria or smoke shop where one of my friends, the cigar designer I mentioned earlier, invited us. My dad got some of the best advice you could ask for and left with a wonderful assortment of some of the finest Dominican cigars. We enjoyed some rum while my dad tried one of the cigars suggested for him. We had a great chat with my friend any we even had a change to meet the owner of the smoke lounge who happens to also be the owner of Davidoff Cigars, one of the most famous cigar brands in the world. My dad got a personal invitation to their VIP lounge in NYC. Cigars in hand, my dad left the tabaqueria with a huge smile on his face.

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For my parents last day we spent the morning in Jarabacoa, a mountainous and refreshing ecotourism hub about 30 minutes outside the city. My good friend and trusted driver Rafael or Rafie took us all around Jarabacoa. We went to Salto Jimenoa, a waterfall where Jurassic Park was filmed. The only way to get to the waterfall is via a series of suspension bridges.  After that adventure we went to La Confluencia, where two rivers meet. There were tons of young boys on horseback encouraging us to take a ride down the shore. If only we had more time.

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Rafael took us to one of the hotels nearby to see a beautiful view of the river. We also took his advice and went to lunch at a delicious buffet style restaurant, Restaurante Bueno Sabor. It might have been the most inexpensive meal my parents had during their time here but had the best flavor, a true testament to the name of the restaurant.

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The final touch of the gorgeous day in the mountains was Rafie’s special treat. Rafie promised to take us to the place that had the best ice cream in the whoooole world. Although I didn’t think I could eat another bite after our lunch I quickly changed my mind. We arrived at a tiny family owned store front. This ice cream shop only made flavors that were in season, some with milk and some without. All the ice cream was made without preservatives and with all local natural ingredients.  Rafie got chinola (passion fruit) and my mom got tamarind, which were flavors without milk. My dad and I indulged and I got the famous coconut while my dad tried the batata which is a Dominican equivalent to sweet potato. The ice creams came in little plastic cups with Popsicle sticks jutting out diagonally. Once the outside thawed a little you would take it out of the cup to eat as if it were a Popsicle. This was truly the best ice cream I had ever tasted in my life. Once I finished my ice cream the combination of fresh air and a full stomach eased me into a siesta on our way to the airport.

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Although I got a much needed nap in, I was sad to have to say goodbye to my parents so quickly once we arrived at the airport. Their visit seemed far too short. I couldn’t believe they were actually in the DR and the next minute I couldn’t believe they were leaving. Their visit truly seemed like a dream.

 

 



11/11/2014

Los Charcos de Los Indios

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Last weekend I had the opportunity of experiencing Caminata del Rio Gurabo or Los Charcos de los Indios. On this adventure I traveled with a group of CIEE students in a small bus up and through the mountains. We stopped on the top of one of the hills and began our adventure from there. We hiked through a beautiful river which was surrounded by lush greenery (despite the fact that this area is considered to be relatively dry region).

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Our hike was definitely rewarded with an amazing view of a colossal face of the Taino god Cohoba carved into the mountain side. This carving is possibly the only site of indigenous monumental architecture that exists in the entire Caribbean. We enjoyed a picnic lunch looking up at this face as Lynne colored our imaginations with her anthropological research. This area in the mountains was where many Tainos had fled to escape the Spaniards. The waterfalls that painted the foreground of Cohoba were where many of the Tainos would bathe.

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 After our lunch some of us ventured along the rocks to explore the area. After a long hike I was content with resting and looking at the view but my friends Valerie and Riley encouraged me to follow them as they scaled the rocks along the pools of water. Following them was not easy. Some of the rock climbing we did was definitely a little treacherous and was a true testament to the trust that has fostered the wonderful friendships I have made here.

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 After our rock climbing adventure and acquiring a few scrapes along the way we made it to the top of the monument. The view was well worth the journey. I could not believe how high up we were and how surreal the moment felt. The view was incredible and I felt as if I had a birds-eye-view of the whole area.

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After scrambling back down the rocks we swam in the charcos. We slid down one of the waterfalls and enjoyed a refreshing dunk after climbing the hot rocks. Our hike back to the bus was even more challenging seeing as it was all uphill. Our efforts were rewarded by stopping at a casabe factory what supplies the majority of the island. As you might remember from an earlier post casabe is a delicious bread/cracker-like food made from yucca. To me, being gluten intolerant, this bread is a treat for me and my host mom toasts it with olive oil and salt for me frequently. At the factory they have coconut casabe which was a special surprise. I stalked up on quite a bit of it and brought some home to share with my host family.

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 The next day a few of my friends and I went to our favorite beach, Sosua. Our friend Miguel, whose family owns our favorite restaurant there, greeted us in front of their renovated restaurant. The whole family was so proud to show us their new-and-improved storefront.

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While my friends spent the morning at the beach I took a motoconcho (motorcycle) to an interview at The Mariposa Foundation in Cabarete. The Mariposa Foundation is a girl’s empowerment organization that works to serve underprivileged girls in the community.  I got chills touring the facilities and meeting some of the staff members. After my interview I was offered a position to intern there this summer! It feels so perfect especially after my internship with Girls Inc. this past summer. If you are interested in learning mroe about the Mairposa Foundation click here! It looks like I may be staying in the DR for the summer as well!

 

 

11/05/2014

Autumn in the Tropics

 

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My apologies for neglecting to blog for almost a month now! Time flies when you are having fun but time also flies when you are used to having a drastic change in seasonal weather but the 95-degree-sunny-days continue through October and into November. Although I miss the festive feeling of autumn in New England, especially Halloween, I cannot complain seeing as I have enjoyed the beach almost every weekend since I’ve arrived here in August. However, my friends and I we could not resist the erge to carve a pumkin. We could't find find any pumpkins to carve on the island so we make do with local fruit and in honor of Halloween we carved a watermelon which we called a "wumpkin".

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One of the many things that never ceases to amaze me during my time here are the sunsets. Although my pictures may seem beautiful they do not adequately capture the cotton candy skies that drape over the ocean like a comforter gently tucking the waves into bed. My eyes have feasted on more candy here than any trick-or-treated will encounter during their lifetime. I have caught myself taking the beauty of this island for granted a few times. The spontaneity of life here continues to remind me that each moment is precious and that I need to take advantage of every moment.

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Most of the themes I have focused on in my blog have been light hearted and focus on my adventures around the island. Although my time to explore and see new sights and different parts of the island has opened my eyes to so many things, I truly think the time I have spent in Santiago de los Caballeros has been where I have grown most.

Studying abroad in a “developing country” has its perks for American students whose spending money goes a lot father here than in the States. The types of activities I get to indulge in on the island are things that I would not be able to afford back home. Getting to experience the life of luxury in Dominican Republic has been a dream but also a wakeup call.

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Studying International Development and Social Change at Clark has drawn my attention to the unsettling inequalities around the world. My time abroad has truly put me face to face with that inequality, an uncomfortable yet absolutely necessary experience. Before my time abroad I was aware that life was unfair, I was aware that I was privileged, but I never knew to what extent or truly saw what that meant.

I attend university with some of the wealthiest students in the Dominican Republic where dressing to impress is more or less the dress code. However, outside the gates campus and less than a 5 minute walk down the street is a barrio, a neighborhood that many people in the US would refer to as a slum. An institute of higher education is practically beside a neighborhood whose population often lacks the opportunity to finish elementary school.  Many wealthy neighborhoods abut extremely poor neighborhoods which creates striking visual that highlights what inequality truly means.  My reflections have yielded frustration for a corrupt system, shame for the privileges granted to me, gratitude for my opportunities, and passion to combat the inequalities I see in my lifetime.

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Another eye-opening experience has been attending a history class taught with a Caribbean point of view. As a US citizen, our history classes in grade school never taught us about the puppet governments and dictators we have supported in Latin America or the Caribbean.  I think we often learn to look at our country through rose-tinted glasses. There are many things I am so grateful for and there are many opportunities that I may not have had if it wasn’t for my nationality however, I have learned that, in order to become a global citizen, you have to reexamine yourself through many different lenses.

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One of the beauties of Santiago is that it is not a huge tourist destination. Apart from the other international students, you don’t see many foreigners walking around the city. For me this has been a wonderful way to be surrounded by Dominican culture but it also makes me stick out like a sore thumb.  Trying to blend in and have an “authentic” experience has proven to be more of a challenge than I anticipated; however, I have accepted the challenge.

I am glad to learn that my cross-cultural experience has been something that I have reflected on profoundly during my time here and has helped me grow a lot as a person. Recognizing white privilege and the opportunities granted to me for being born with US citizenship have been humbling, hard to stomach, but ultimately crucial to my growth here.  I encourage everyone who reads this to take a minute to appreciate all that you have and all that you bring to this world. Never forget how many places an open mind allows you to travel and how far reflections can lead you down the path to becoming a more global citizen.

 

 

 

 

10/10/2014

A Week of Firsts

I had to laugh when one of my friends asked me after reading my blog “So, do you do any school work or do you just travel around the country and go to the beach?” For those of you who may be asking the same question, yes, I am doing school work! In fact, this week I passed in my first 10 page Spanish research paper on the sugar revolutions in the minor Antilles, presented on the same topic to my class of all Dominicans, had my first dance exam and also did miscellaneous homework for my other classes. Although I am active academically, I still have a great deal of time to explore the country on the weekends and explore the city of Santiago during the week.

Monday night I went to Lunes de jazz at the main theater by the monument for the first time. I had such a blast! So many musicians get up and join in on the fabulous jam session on stage. There was a salsa band that played that was out of this world and got most of the people dancing out of their seats!

Wednesday I experienced my first late-night street food. Most of the dishes in the cart, apart from burgers, were foreign to me or obviously contained a large helping of red meat. My friend Fernando helped me order. I ended up ordering yaroa. I had no idea what it was other than plantains were involved. When my food came out all I could see was a layer of cheese covering a neatly folded paper fires box with a plastic fork sticking out the side. When in Rome right? (or as some of my friends and I like to say “YODRO” you only Dominican Republic once…not that I needed to add anymore cheese to this dish).  When trying this dish I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly I was tasting. The base of the dish was boiled plantains that were covered with chicken, mayonnaise, ketchup, and cheese. I was told that street food doesn’t get more Dominican than that!

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This weekend was a blast! Thursday night kicked it off with watching the movie “In the Time of the Butterflies”. The movie is about the Hermanas Mirabal, 3 sisters whose courageous and revolutionary actions were instrumental in taking down Trujillo, a dictator who was in power for 30 years. The sister’s legacy lived on in the Dominican Republic and heightened the awareness of violence against women. The day of their assassination, November 25 was the inspiration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The butterfly was a symbol of their movement against Trujillo and is now a symbol that is commonly recognized for all of that the sisters stood for.

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Friday we had the opportunity to visit the Museum of the Hermanas Mirabal. Having the ability to see where such inspirational and powerful women once lived was incredible. Hearing their story and the impact they have had on the island and around the world was humbling but also empowering.

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After spending time and getting a tour of the museum we went to en EcoPeace Park. We walked through beautiful gardens with thoughtful plaques, outlining the importance of peace and the steps we can take to get there. Upon leaving the park a butterfly crossed my path, it was the perfect touch to an enchanting morning.

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On our way home we stopped at a fresh fruit stand where the majority of us got fresh juices and fruity snacks for the ride home.

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Friday evening a bunch of my friends and I got a bus to La Vega for a weekend in Jarabacoa, a beautiful mountainous area not far from the city. Or bus arrived at our second stop late and we had to haggle with a taxi driver for a ride to our friend’s house. We piled in, concho style, into the taxi and made a quick journey from the bus stop to Jarabacoa.  We were welcomed by our friends host mom who we now affectionately call Tía (Auntie).  We had a little fiesta that evening which was a blast! The cool mountain air was so refreshing!

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In the morning we went white water rafting, another first! We had such a blast! It was definitely an adrenalin rush. I was giggling the whole way down! Our animated instructor was a riot and admitted to having the best job in the world. We all worked up quite and appetite after our morning we had a giant delicious lunch. We had some time to wade in the river and bask in the sun for a bit before we headed back to our friends house for a siesta.We had another great night of laughs and dancing out on the deck under the stars.

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Bright and early, my friend Annie and I woke up to meet Lynne Guitar, our academic advisor and academic celebrity on Taino Indian anthropology, to make our way to a festival of indigenous culture in San Cristobal outside of Santo Domingo.  What an amazing experience. There was a parade all the way up La Toma, a huge mountain with a famous cave at the top. The view from the mountain was incredible. It was so interesting to see people dressed up in Taino garb. Lynne brought us Taino necklaces to wear during the festival which just so happened to match perfectly with what we wore that day.

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We arrived on to the cave early and took a tour. I had no idea what to expect. The caves were HUGE and went so deep into the mountainside. Inside were hundreds of Taino pictographs. It was absolutely spectacular. Lynne made this adventure truly special, being around her is such a treat, she is an oracle of knowledge. At one point, in one of the deepest chambers we had a moment of silence in complete darkness. I don’t think I have ever experienced complete darkness, the pitch black where your eyes will never adjust. All I could hear was the blood pulsing through my body as I felt a as if my ears were expanding to fill the space around me. I cannot put into words how profound and sacred that time was.

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The whole day was wonderful. I tried fresh cassava bread that was to die for, talked with some of Lynne’s Taino friends, ate a hearty Dominican lunch, and enjoyed all the festivities.PA050166

 One of the most powerful aspects of this adventure was learning about the history of preservation of these sacred caves. La Toma has been exploited since the caves in this area are known for being rich with limestone. Much of the mountainside has been chewed away by large corporations and money making schemes that destroy the environment and historical artifacts all around the island. Years ago, the caves were jeopardized and almost demolished in order to harvest limestone. A group of children hid in the caves to protest the destruction. This heroic statement saved the caves by grabbing the attention of a well known Taino family. Thanks to these children the historic Pomier caves are now a national park and will be enjoyed for hundreds of years.

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09/30/2014

Samaná

I am living in paradise.

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Samaná is a stunning peninsula on the north east coast of the island, a region that I cannot believe I knew nothing about just a few weeks ago.

On our bus ride across the island I couldn’t help staring out the window to see the amazing foliage.  As we got closer to the peninsula we drove on a long twisty-turny highway that weaved in and out of the mountains and overlooked miles of virgin beaches lined with palm trees. I still have trouble believing I was not in a dream.
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We stopped along the way to check out a cave that abutted the highway. The view of the ocean and the mountainside was breath taking! We all filed into the cave and learned about the geographic history of the island. Little did I know what the entire island of Hispaniola was once a giant coral reef. Through the movement of tectonic plates the reefs raised above sea level, creating the island and along with it a hilly terrain. Although these old coral reefs are not affected by salt water, rain water often erodes them and therefore creates phenomenal caves where the weaker parts of the coral once existed.2014-09-25 22.55.51
We arrived at our beautiful hotel in Las Terrenas that was steps away from the ocean. We unpacked our things in adorable decorated apartments and made our way back to the bus for another adventure.P9280297

Before I knew it we were embarking on a hike to Salto Limón. Leading the way was fabulous guide who taught us so much about the flora and fauna in this region.  We saw plants that would shrink when touched by humans, hundreds of fruit trees, fossils, and the nests of Cigua Palmeras (the national bird) high up in the tops of palm trees. I even learned about the different medicinal properties some leaves and flowers have.P9260097
Parts of the hike made me feel as if I were in a Dr. Suess book. Palm trees lined the trail and speckled the hillside and only a couple brightly painted houses populated the area.P9260089P9260095
After our short hike we arrived at the top of a beautiful waterfall! I have never seen something so lush and spectacular. We scrambled down steep steps to get to the bottom of the waterfall. The moss that clung to the rock was luminescent.  The cascading water formed a deep pool at the bottom that I was swimming in in no time!
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There were small crevices and caves to discover and the water was so refreshing! I could not fathom the beauty that surrounded me.
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That night we had a delicious dinner on the beach as the sun set.  Paradise.
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Saturday we had the opportunity to explore Parque National Los Haitíses. During our bus ride to the dock I got to learn about the fascinating history of Samaná. This region of the Dominican Republic is well known for all the influences that blend to create a unique regional culture. Samaná has a strong French, Haitian, English, and Dominican influence. During the Haitian “occupation” of the Dominican Republic, many slaves that had escaped the U.S. through the Underground Railroad were welcomed by boat as they sailed from Philadelphia in the 1800s. The mix of cultures is evident in the unique architecture as well. On route we got to see some of the most spectacular views in the country as we looked from high up into the mountains down to the palm tree filled shoreline. 10388582_10202879841141876_8742765412764648836_n

During our boat ride to Los Haitises we learned so much about the humpback whale. The bay of Samaná is where humpback whales mate. The whales make their journey from all the way up near Canada and New England to the bay to mate and to give birth to their young. During mating season (January through March) there are hundreds of whales that come to the Dominican Republic. Who knew that all North Atlantic humpback whales were Dominican?

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As we entered Los Haitíses there were tall islands with so many birds circling the top. I felt like I was in the beginning of the King Kong movie when they land on the island. As we grew closer we got to observe so many varieties of birds that were perched on the tree branches and flying around the island. The size of these birds was amazing. My camera couldn’t capture their impressive wing span or vibrant colors.P9260136 P9260128

Once the boat docked we paired up and boarded kayaks. We paddled our way through turquoise water while surrounded by the steep cliffs of all the different islands.  Vine-like roots hung down to the water from the trees whose home lay far up on the top of the islands. Moss covered the rocky sides, bordering the small caves that appeared, hidden by roots and vegetation. As we paddled we made our way deeper through the mangroves.  The root systems of the mangroves are simply stunning. They weave through each other creating an intricate nest of roots through the water. From the branches are hanging roots that almost seem to have knuckles, as if they were arms reaching for water.  There were crabs crawling up the moss covered roots that were freckled with snails. I even caught a glimpse of a few birds gliding on top of the water.P9270210
Upon returning to the boat we went swimming. Jumping into the water was refreshing and the water felt like bath water almost sweet tasting. Around us were jellyfish who were almost impossible to catch but you could feel them as the brushed by you. It started to rain while we were in the water and I couldn’t believe that I was actually living this dream.

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We scrambled onto the boat for a delicious lunch and then made our way into the cave. The cave we entered had pictographs that had been painted by Taino Indians hundreds of years ago. The cave had been used by the Tainos as a spiritual sanctuary. Caves were seen as a place to connect with the gods. Many Tainos would consume hallucinogenic plants to allow them to foster a stronger spiritual connection.  Being in the caves felt like such a spiritual experience. Seeing the stalactites, stalagmites, columns and intricate patterns made into the cave walls was mind blowing.P9270181
There was one area in the cave where there was a “skylight”. Through the opening was a tree that was rooted in the cave and that had roots the spiraled together and made its way out of the cave.  It was an enchanting experience.
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On our way back we saw the beautiful sunset coloring the sky above the ocean.
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That night a bunch of the students had a party on the beach outside the hotel. We had a blast chatting and dancing. I have never seen the stars shine so brightly. Swimming in the water and looking up at the sky was surreal. The next day we got to relax on the beach and eat a leisurely breakfast and lunch.

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We had a long trip home but I came home to the open arms of my host family. It really felt good to be home. I am starting to get really close with my host mom and have had some wonderful deep conversations with her over the past few weeks. She makes me feel like my home is in Santiago.




26 People and a Chicken on a 15 Passenger Van

24 de Septiembre 2014

This weekend a couple of my girlfriends and I decided we needed a relaxing weekend at the beach. After making last minute plans Thursday night, we met at the bus station Friday morning to make our way to Sosua. Once we arrived the first order of business was lunch. We walked down to the beach to a family restaurant my friends had already created a friendship with. We feasted on fresh Parrot Fish and tostones (I dare describe how delicious it was, knowing that will end up occupying most of this post).

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We stayed at the beach all day, enjoying the crystal clear water and good company. As the sun started to set we decided that all we wanted more of the delicious fish we had for lunch. We ordered Parrot Fish for everyone and ate dinner right along the water’s edge as the sun set.
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We originally planned to only stay one night but we were not ready to part with our comfy hostel upgraded room in Cabarete and the beautiful beaches in Sosua quite yet. We booked the rooms for another night and two of our friends came to join us.

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On our way to Sosua that morning, we caught another concho. The most popular conchos in this area are 15-passanger vans that travel the main road connecting Sosua and Cabarete. They are what most locals use as transport to get to and from work as they run from 6am to 6pm. The concho that stopped to pick us up looked pretty full, and when I say that, that means more full than the day before when there were 20 people squeezed into the back of the van. However, the driver had no concern that we would not fit. He quickly asked people to squeeze in a little tighter and we somehow jammed ourselves into the van. I ended up sitting on a small ledge near the door. With the tropical climate the van tends to get pretty hot. All the windows and the sliding door are usually kept open to help with air flow. I was precariously perched right next to the open door that had 3 passengers hanging on outside of it. As the concho bumped along the road I held tight chuckling with the Dominicans I was sitting next to.  All the sudden heard a squawk.  I looked to my right and saw one of the men had a chicken on his lap. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier! I counted the number of the people on the bus and there were 26 people (and a chicken) piled onto a van. This was in addition to the large bags of grain that some people were carrying to the markets that they worked at. Half way through the ride the man with the chicken got off the concho. Before getting off he handed the chicken to the driver. Now I am not sure, but it looked to me that he paid for his transportation with a chicken! I regret that I didn’t take a photo of this experience with Dominican public transportation but as you may have gathered there wasn’t too much room to go rummaging through by bag in search of my camera.2014-09-20 23.55.42

On the topic of public transportation, I love the conversations I have with my favorite taxista (taxi driver) Rafael. Tonight he told me there are 3 phases in life. The first, el león (lion) where you are young and on top of the world and partying all day and night. The second is the burro (donkey) where you work day in and day out (this is the stage he is in now). Lastly is the stage of el mono (monkey) where you are bald and hunched over and wrinkled with saggy eyes. I told him that I am determined to stay a leona for as long as I can his reply: bueno suerte -good luck. Feeling lucky to experience this country as a young leona. I can only hope that I am as animated as Rafael in my burro years.

09/16/2014

La Solapa

 

If only I could loan you my eyes, my ears, my hands, my nose, and my mouth, you could truly share the profound experiences I have had this far. I will do my best with my words and pictures to capture some of the most amazing moments. Where should I begin?
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This past weekend a group of CIEE students had the opportunity to embark on a three day work retreat in “el campo”. Friday we arrived in La Solapa, a small town located in the middle of the beautiful countryside. With the support of multiple community organizations we were able to help build a farmacia with the goal to improve the community’s access to health supplies. Solapa is known primarily for its organic cacao production.  Yes, organic cocoa. I can’t believe that, before this weekend, I had no idea how my favorite sweet was actually produced, or even what a cocoa tree looked like! Now I have seen first had what it takes to harvest, dry, ferment, and EAT cocoa. 

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In el campo, a traditional breakfast consists of a FRESH cup of “leche de cocoa” or what you may call hot chocolate milk, bread, and coffee. Hot chocolate I used to conjure of fond memories of cozy fire places, winter, and the holiday season. For some reason, maybe because I am a New Englander, I had a special pride about my relationship with hot cocoa. I must admit, I had no idea what I was talking about.

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For breakfast I sipped a mug of hot chocolate milk as if I had never tasted something so delicious in my life. The leche de cacao is warmed in a giant pot over a fire and spiced with fresh cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and of course sugar. I think I died and went to heaven with every sip. The flavors of this weekend are enough to populate a blog for the entire year! I tried so many new things. I ate limón dulce (sweet lime) which tastes like limeade in fruit form and is so basic that it is actually used as eyewash by many of the locals! I gnawed on sugar cane, consumed so many fresh avocados, mandarin oranges, and at least 4 fruits that I don’t know how to translate into English. I ate the gel around cacao seeds that tastes like candy and sun roasted cacao seeds (a true treat for any dark chocolate lover). I also had sancocho, a traditional Dominican stew with chicken, rice, yucca, taro and plantain, for the first time. I am simply going to have to leave the food experience here because I could go on for hours. “Barriga llena, corazón contento.” A full stomach, a happy heart.

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We were greeted with open arms and a heartwarming welcome when we arrived at our worksite. We divided into groups and brought our bags to the homes where we would be staying for the next two nights. After changing into work clothes we wasted no time as we took advantage of the daylight, mixing cement to prep the walls for the next day of work.  2014-09-13 00.12.35

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. We were served at a long table a delicious spread of traditional Dominican food; fried cheese, spiced chicken, yucca, plantain, sautéed red onions, salad, rice and habichuelas (red beans). I’ve never seen a group of people eat so quickly and intently.

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We continued to chat after dinner and had some great conversations about sustainable development. I cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to be a part of a program that helps me reflect on my experiences and pushes me out of my comfort zone (into my “learning zone”).  Although I have kept most of the topics on my blog light, my experiences here have already allowed me to explore so much about race, education, politics, privilege, development, corruption,  poverty, fidelity, global citizenship, religion, culture, vulnerability, humility,  nationality, language, relationships, awareness and mindfulness.  I have already opened my mind to so many new things and I know that there are so many more experiences and learning yet to come.

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After dinner, the girls in the community were waiting for us outside. They loved to play with our hair. They were equipped with hair ties, brushed, bows, and smiles. We giggled together the whole time, even when they adopted more aggressive braiding techniques that my scalp was not used to.  La Solapa is part of the safest region in the entire country. The sense of community pride and support is evident. After our braiding party, the girls took us by the hand and led us down the road in the pitch dark, laughing as we ran down hills lit up by fireflies. We ended up at a community building where we all sang together and danced. Smiles were contagious and I fell asleep that night grinning to myself, in awe of all the love in one community.

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Saturday was a long, tiring, exciting and rewarding day of work. After waking up to the rooster’s calls and a delicious breakfast we divided into groups; some of us, working on the farmacia, and others, creating cacao tree starters at the local nursery.   When there was a lull in the afternoon, the kids in the community took us on a hike up one of the mountains. We made our way up with steep countryside to see the most stunning view of the campo. As far as we could see were rolling mountains.  No camera can eloquently capture the beauty of the campo and the depth of the experience I have only scratched the surface of.  2014-09-13 03.24.38
We had another opportunity to take a hike to see some of the projects done in the past. We hiked up a mountain to see the aqueduct that had been created several years ago. High up the mountain is a natural spring with delicious, sweet water. Much of the water makes its way—via gravity—down a series of pipes that fill the tank and help capture more water for the community to utilize. On our way up the mountain we stopped in a community members’ yard and got to try so many of the delicious fruits grown on his land. Organic farming in the campo is simply utilizing the natural biodiversity. All the trees and plants are intertwined, not only creating a beautiful array of colors and the ideal place to take a snack break, but function as a perfect ecosystem, as it should.

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After feasting on another delicious meal and chatting about our day we were invited to a wonderful community party where we danced the night away!

Sunday was another day of hard work but the progress made was so wonderful to see. We were able to cover all the interior walls and half the exterior with stucco, make a bridge to the front of the building, finish the roof, the floor, and some exterior aesthetics. We said a bitter sweet goodbye to the community before we boarded back onto the guagua.2014-09-14 03.06.49

The personal connections that are made across cultures with experiences like this one are something I find so profound.  To me, bridging the cultural gap starts with making relationships that foster fond memories and peaceful futures.  10665861_787755300046_4681728367539621475_n
 



09/11/2014

Sirena en el mar de maravillas

 

This Sunday, I had an experience like no other. The CIEE crew boarded onto two busses at 8am to start our journey to Playa La Ensenada. The two hour bus ride flew by as I feasted my eyes on the mountainous campo. Never ending hills surrounded us as the bus twisted through winding roads that gave us an ever so brief view into the lives of the people living in the farm towns. We made a quick pit stop along the way at a small family food stand situated with a backdrop of rolling mountains and small ranches populating the landscape. There, we tasted “queso de hoja”, a traditional Dominican cheese that is thick and salty in its unique flavor.2014-09-06 23.18.41

Arriving at Playa La Ensenada felt like a truly authentic Dominican experience. We poured off the bus eager to see the beach after the long ride. We walk through a line of restaurants that bordered the entire beach in a colorful array of painted scrap metal and plastic tarps. The air was filled the spices, salt, and MUSIC. A dirt pathway divided the food vendors from the array of covered tables which looked out onto the white sand and aquamarine water of the Atlantic Ocean. With a tall rocky boarder to our right, rolling mountains covered by a light haze to our left and never-ending crystal clear water in front of us, I felt as if I got a glimpse of heaven.

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Soon after we arrived a handful of us boarded boats with brightly colored life jackets and made our way to Cayo Arena, a coral reef not too far off of the shore. Our fearless captains had us flying over the waves. My eyes have never had such a feast. Looking out onto the rolling hills was just spectacular while I was surrounded by angelic waters. We stopped to swim in a piscina natural (natural pool) on our way. Swimming in the crystal clear water was surreal and felt so cleansing.
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We journeyed farther into the ocean and started to draw closer to these little shacks in the distance. As we got closer I couldn’t believe my eyes. There lay six or seven thatch huts mounted on top of a sand bar that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Our boat reared to a stop and we all frantically jumped off the sides to get a closer look. We were hung our towels in the huts, creating a colorful banner that waved in the wind.

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The next thing I knew, I was given a mask and snorkel and followed our captain out into the ocean. Neon fish darted between my legs as I waded through the shallow water. I couldn’t contain my excitement! It just seemed too good to be true. I put my mask on and submerged myself in the water. I had no idea that what was under the water would be even more spectacular that the view above. Without a doubt, my childhood dream to become a mermaid came true as I swam with the fish all around a huge coral reef. I wish words or pictures could eloquently explain my experience that day. I felt as if I was dreaming.

After spending a few hours snorkeling and relaxing on the sand bar we made our way back to the main beach. The boat ride was much choppier on the way back and all of laughed to whole way, as if we were on a rollercoaster ride! We weaved in and out of mangroves, gawking at the intricate root system and the plethora of sea life that clung onto it.

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Upon arriving at the beach we wasted no time waiting for lunch. We lined up and filled our plates with fresh fish, tostones (fried plantains), fried yam, rice and beans, shredded cabbage and tomato. After all that swimming I had no trouble eating my giant plate of delicous dominican cuisine! The fish was incredible, possibly some of the best I have ever tasted. The eye-ball is supposed to be the best part; however, I could not bring myself to eat it (my inner-vegetarian was in a bit of a crisis). Maybe next time I will be able to take the plunge!

09/01/2014

Historía del Caribe

I had my first day of classes on Thursday! I am finally getting accustomed to PUCCM’s giant campus filled with exotic blossoming trees and distinctive architecture. My last class of the day was “Historia del Caribe”. I was the first one to arrive to the classroom since I left plenty of time to find the building. As class time approached the classroom filled with more and more Dominican students. Little did I realize I was going to be the only international student in the class!  At first I was extremely nervous, however, my charismatic professor made me feel right at home and I left the class so energized and excited for the knowledge I will gain from the course and emersion!

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Not only did I get a history lesson in the classroom, I got to explore the country’s capital, Santo Domingo, and expanded my knowledge about the island of Hispaniola.2014-08-29 00.44.56

While in Santo Domingo we went to the Museo del Hombre Dominicano which is filled with fascinating artifacts from the Taino Indians who inhabited the entire island for thousands of years. With Lynne Guitar, our program director and passionate historian and anthropologist, as our guide we learned so much about the history and culture of the Taino Indians. Her enthusiasm and expansive knowledge brought so much more context and meaning to the island and colored my imagination with stories of the past.  When we boarded the guagua (bus) we got to pick Lynne’s brain and hear all about the Taino creation stories and spiritual practices.
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We took a whirlwind tour through the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, admiring the architecture and history filled streets abutting el Río Ozama and the Caribbean Sea.

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My history lesson didn’t end there. I continued to learn about the Spanish colonization of the island and how the legacy of Christopher Columbus still haunts the island today.

The effects of colonization continue to plague many countries and are often manifested in the exploitation of workers in developing countries. As an International Development and Social Change major as Clark University I am extremely passionate about this topic. Most workers unions in developing countries, if they exist at all, do not function and thus workers are barely paid a living wage, lack workers rights, and are often exposed to harmful and sometimes deadly working conditions. On the island of Hispanola, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have “Zona Francas” or free trade zones, where corporations are exempt from taxes to the government and ignore workers rights.

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One of the stops we made on the way to Santo Domingo was at Alta Gracia, a non-sweat clothing factory. This unique clothing factory is one of the few that exist in the world that treats its workers the way they should be treated. Alta Gracia, validated by Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), pays its workers three times the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic and prides itself on its working conditions and honoring the rights of its workers. We were able to tour the entire facility. Not only was it a fascinating experience to see how clothes are actually created, but to see a comfortable working environment. I even had an opportunity to talk to the workers directly, which was incredible! They took pride in their work and were extremely friendly and animated. We saw many things being made there including many Alta Gracia sweatshirts and t-shirts. We also saw a Starbucks bag being created. It was great to see a large corporation from the U.S. supporting just treatment of workers. I would highly encourage anyone to check out Alta Gracia's website and support their practices! Click here to learn more about Alta Gracia

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Friday night a bunch of friends and I went to a beautiful discoteca on the top floor of a mall complex. The atmosphere was fabulous and seemed relatively exclusive. To be completely honest I felt as if I was in a James Bond movie at first. The best part about the night was musica vivo (live music). There was a fantastic band playing Merengue music all night! I got so swept up in dancing I lost track of the time and danced the night away (literally…we took at taxi home at 5am). I still feel like I am living a dream!

 

Y al fin, la vista de mi balcón, el monumento mirando a su ciudad.

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08/28/2014

¡Bienvenida a Santiago de los Caballeros!

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I have been in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, la República Dominicana for one week and I still feel like I am in a dream!  10625127_705462872824657_7405128381200485122_n

I am living with a host family in La Rinconada which means “little corner” as it is located on the corner of the large upper-middle class barrio of Esmeralda. Across the street is a fruit vendor who has a colorful display of bananas, mangos, passion fruit, plantains, oranges, etc. I am a 15 minute walk from the PUCMM (Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra) which everyone calls “Poo-kuh-mai-muh” for short. My host mother, Aracelys is sweet, caring and makes me feel right at home. I also have a host sister who is completing her study of architecture at PUCMM this semester with her thesis on the urbanization in cities in the DR.

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Every morning I wake up to a delicious breakfast with fresh fruit and fresh squeezed juice. The juices of passion fruit, mango, pineapple, and papaya have been my favorites. Here, the biggest meal of the day is lunch. Typically there is rice, meat, and vegetables. A very popular dish here is “mangu” which is mashed plantains with spices and onions. According to my mom, its name originates from an “extranjero” (foreigner) from the U.S. who visited the D.R. many years ago and when he tried the dish he said “muuuuy gooood”.

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As a gluten-free vegetarian, I decided to add chicken to my diet to experience more culturally relevant foods and make the life of my host mom, who cooks all my meals, a little easier. She is a wonderful cook and is very attentive to learning what foods I can eat while making 3 delicious meals for me each day. I tried “cassava” the other day which is a traditional Dominican food that’s origin is of the Taino Indians. It is a thin bread-like creation that is made out of yucca. There are some variations of cassava that are made with coconut or garlic so it can be a dessert-like a cookie or a bread-like substitute and it is especially good toasted. My mom makes delicious eggplant dishes as well. I always thought I was not a big eggplant fan but sautéed in the perfect blend of spices with onion and peppers, la berenjena has become one of my favorite things to eat here! Although wheat is common in the D.R. I have had many delicious desserts such as cakes made with maize and milk. Tonight my mom made an amazing fruit dish with cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey.

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This past weekend I had a chance to explore the city. With some friends I explored the area around the Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración and la Calle del Sol which is a big commercial street. I tried fresh coconut water (the coconut actually cut open right in front of you and a straw is stuck in the top). It costs RD$30 which is about US$0.70 and is one of the most delicious, refreshing things I’ve ever tasted! Vita Coco has nothing on fresh coconut milk, especially when you can scrape the sides and get the fresh coconut meat inside!

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At night I got to see the night life in the city. I went to two different discotecas on Friday and Saturday night and got to put my new dance skills to the test. Although the clubs here do play lots of popular music from the U.S. and other modern music, which is referred to as “reggaeton”, they also play Merengue, Salsa, and Bachata music which is so much fun to dance to! I had a dance partner on Saturday who misheard me over the loud music and thought that my answer to “De dondé eres” (Where are you from?) was “de Ponce (a city in Puerto Rico)” instead of “de Boston”. Later we clarified that the whole time he thought I was Puerto Rican and when he found out I was from the U.S. couldn’t believe I had arrived to the D.R. only four days before and already knew how to dance so well! I think that was the biggest complement I have received in a long time. Who knows, maybe he was just charming me, but I have definitely gained some confidence in my dancing skills!

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I am looking forward to blogging about my future adventures! Stay posted!