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6 posts categorized "Travel"


Misunderstanding of the Week!

Every time I travel to another country, whether I speak the language or not, miscommunications are responsible the bulk of the stories I tell afterwards. Whether it be in Poland, locking my AirBnb host out of his own apartment at 11pm or in Spain, shocking an unsuspecting movie theater cashier by confusing the Disney film Vaiana (better known as Moana in the US) with the spanish word vagina (and yes, it means exactly what you think), I always find a way to embarrass myself and laugh about it later. And the Dominican Republic is certainly no exception. My “favorite” misunderstanding this week was by far my excursion to the military police headquarters. In my defense, I thought it was a castle. (To be fair, the word castillo is written in bold above the arching entryway.) In any case, as I stood at the top of the hill taking in the beautiful view of Santiago, I didn’t have the slightest idea that I was walking a thin line between forgivable but idiotic gringa to trespasser. After looking around and seeing a few Dominicans staring at me, I walked into a courtyard. Still taking in the sights, I didn’t pay attention to the armed military policeman marching towards me. He shouted and began to explain (in rapid fire Spanish) why I shouldn’t be there, while another group of policemen watched from the edges of the courtyard. Instead of explaining my misunderstanding like an adult, I ran away, darting across a busy street and into a crowd of pedestrians. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what that policeman said or what exactly that building was used for, but I don’t think I’ll be heading back to find out anytime soon.

But when I’m not accidentally encountering Santiago’s police, this is what I do:

Blog de jaiden 2

Blog de jaiden 2

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Blog de jaiden 6

Blog de jaiden 6

-Jaiden Sakamoto


Beach Adventures

Originally posted on my blog January 26th. Someday we´ll get you all caught up I promise!!!

This week was more play hard than work hard. There were national holidays Wednesday and today, Monday. But, a little update on the school front, all my classes are set. They are: Advanced Spanish II, Socioeconomic and Political Processes in the Contemporary Dominican Republic, Afrocaribbean Cultures, and Dominican-Haitian Relations, Intro to Singing, Dance for Foreigners, and Theater Arts. Woo! So much fun to be had. And an ultimate frisbee update - I have practice tomorrow!
Well that was my "work" update and it doesn't really sound like work. Well here goes the fun update:
Wednesday a group of exchange students from CIEE and ISA as well as PUCMM students hopped on a couple guaguas and made our way to Playa Alicia. This is close to Playa Sosua but is less populated and has bigger waves. It was a fun day complete with Spikeball, frisbee, and a pair of sunglasses lost to the joys of body surfing.

Saturday was a planned CIEE day trip to Playa Ensenada but Brianne had been doing some scheming and the two of us headed North a day early. We left Santiago around nine on a public guagua to La Isabella. From there we took a motoconcho to our hotel - Casa Libre. The journey was relatively easy. Definitely could have been a lot more interesting! We got to Casa Libre and promptly realized we were in paradise. The place consists of three cabins on stilts overlooking the beach. There is greenery everywhere except for a little path that connects the cabins and winds down to the beach. 
View from the room
Pathway to the beach
Super fancy hotel sign
The cabin's porch
Once were a bit settled in we made arrangements to get to the manatee reservation. Turns out the best option is to rent a 4x4, a deal which also got us a guide and some side stops to even more remote beaches with coral cliffs that had once been under water. It made for quite the adventure, especially since we were expected to drive, which we did quite capably upon receiving some instruction. 
Here I am enjoying the vistas. 
The manatee reservation was cool, quite rustic, but had lots of mangroves and our guide was able to tell us quite a bit about the ecosystem. The manatees showed their noses here and there but were not very photographable. After all this we made our way back to Casa Libre and with a few hours before dinner we went for a sunset walk. It was beautiful!!! 
Dinner was pork tenderloin with a white wine sauce and mozzarella for Brianne and potatoes, broccoli, salad and french bread for me (and Brianne). We were joined for dinner by a Swiss man who had been living in the DR for 11 years, his Ugandan wife, and the man who was currently filming a documentary of the couple. I failed to accurately extract the reason for the documentation. Dinner was a mix of French, German and English, with English being the most successful common denominator. (Breakfast the next morning was enjoyed with a french couple that knew little Spanish and less English, so French became the common denominator for that meal.) Brianne accurately pointed out that it felt a lot more like we were in Europe than the Caribbean. After dinner we headed back to the beach for a late night dip and some stargazing. The water was a tad chilly so I only floated and stargazed for a minute or two, but the view was just as epic lying in the sand. The stars were visible from horizon to horizon as there is very little light pollution. I saw two shooting stars. I had not seen shooting stars since I was on the shore of Flagstaff Lake with my FOP trip freshman year. 
This is the sunset from that night in Maine - remarkably similar, but a lot colder...
After our star gazing we went to bed. Breakfast the next morning was eggs, wheat toast, fresh fruit and tea. We went for a post breakfast walk up to the fishing town of Punta Rucia. Then we came back to collect our things before walking the other direction along the beach to Playa Ensenada where the rest of CIEE had arrived. We joined them for the day, shich included lunch at Teo's - typical Dominican fare - yum! And snorkeling at "Paradise Island" which is essentially a sand dune six miles off the coast where you can snorkel. It was nice. Not the most colorful reef, but there were lots pretty fishies. It was a pretty touristy event, but other guests at Casa Libre said it was less crowded other times of the day so that would be something to keep in mind if I were to return. All in all it was fabulous week full of fun in the sun!



First Excursion for Spring Semester: January 16-17

This is a delayed post from my personal blog! We've got some catching up to do on the CIEE blog so I'd thought with a piece I wrote about the group's excursion to Santo Domingo.

Friday morning the CIEE group left for Santo Domingo. In an unpredictably predictable manner, getting there, in and of itself, was an adventure. One of our two guaguas (buses) broke down about half an hour from our first stop so we all piled into one guagua. It was quite cozy. (AKA 41 of us in a minibus with luggage.) And when I say cozy, I actually mean relatively uncomfortable at many points. (Shoutout to Elainer for letting me sit on her lap. MVP!)

Our first stop of the day was at Alta Gracia, a Zona Franca, unlike any other.  Zona Francas (perhaps known in the US/English as Free Ports) are areas with loosened customs and other regulations. There are many in the DR and Haiti as well as around the world. They have a tendency to have horrible conditions and do more harm than good for the economy. They do little to support the local economy because of the emphasis on exportation and the lack of relationship with the communities. Alta Gracia is a Zona Franca with a very different story. Workers get three times the minimum wage, three square meals a day, access to childcare, educational opportunities, and transportation. They can play music while working and take as many bathroom/water breaks as needed. Someone who starts out with a low-level job has the opportunity to move up the ranks, especially if s/he takes advantage of the educational opportunities available. Alta Gracia makes T-shirts and other customizable apparel, which is predominantly sold to colleges and universities in the United States. Here are some photos from our tour/ conversation with the jefas/jefes (bosses).


Our second stop of the day was lunch. It was amazing. I had the best eggplant parmesan I have ever had. (They are really good at eggplant here.) I also had three pieces of cake....After lunch we were relieved to learn a second guagua had been acquired and our group bonding could be a little less physical.
After that we went to Ingenio Boca de Nigua a former sugar cane plantation. It was really powerful to stand on the same ground as the slaves who were worked to death making sugar did. Ingenio literally means genius. Originally it referred to the machine that pressed sugar (liquid form) from the cane using animal power (mule, horse or slave) but later came to refer to the whole plantation because that one ingenious invention was so integral to the process. Slaves on this type of plantation had a life span of approximately seven years once they stepped into their new world.

Below: Here we are looking down on the Ingenio. Slaves fed cane back and forth on the lower level as animals (or slaves) walked in a circle on the upper level generating the power to squeeze the liquid from the cane. Working for hours on end and struck with fatigue, slaves often lost fingers, a hand or even an arm when unable to maintain the focus required to safely do this job. 

This sunken area is the slave yard, where punishment was doled out daily in the mornings. It is a lower level so as to inhibit slaves form running away upon hearing they were to be punished.

Here we see where the liquid was heated to its crystallization stage. Slaves below ground were chained up an forced to feed the fire. The intolerable heat necessitated the chains on the slaves with this task. The resulting sugar is what we know as brown sugar. Through the drying process excess molasses would drip off the sugar and be used to feed livestock and slaves. Brown sugar was the final product, which was shipped off to Europe to be treated and become white sugar.


This climbable structure was a hell hole of a bunkhouse. Inside, slaves slept in layers on wooden slats in shifts of eight hours, again chained in place to prevent escape.

This particular plantation was the site of a failed slave revolt. The attempt, however, is a source of pride for locals and those beyond. At one point Toussaint Louverture, the predominant leader of the Haitian Revolution, stood at this location when France formally handed Haiti over and peace with the Spanish was negotiated. 
We piled back into our TWO (phew thank goodness we were back to two) guaguas and headed to Santo Domingo and our hotel. Once we were all checked in and a little bit settled, we went to dinner. On our way to dinner we stopped at a salon. "Sophie, why did you guys stop at a salon???" Well, let me tell you. Because this salon, albeit little, is kind of a big deal. And when I say kind of a big deal I actually mean a really big deal as it represents part of a social and more broadly political movement. "Sophie! I still don't get it. How?" Well, let me tell you. Because it caters to women who wear their hair naturally. You will not get your hair relaxed or straightened our otherwise treated to conform to Eurocentric norms regarding hair. Women come here to embrace their roots (pun intended). This salon is one of three in the country that provide services for natural hair. Miss Rizos (the salon) was a beautiful space with a beautiful story. Several of the chicas in our group went back the next day for an appointment or to purchase amazing Yo <3 Mi Pajón shirts.  
That night we were free to do as we pleased and many of us headed out for various amounts of time to practice our merengue, salsa, and bachata skills, but many of us called it quits fairly early because of the promise of the next days adventure (and the threat of the hour at which they began).
The next day my body was kind of rejecting the Caribbean, or at least something I'd eaten, so I had to lay low for the morning. I headed out with the group but was not feeling great enough to continue. The group went on a walking tour of the Zona Colonial and Los Tros Ojos. The link at the end of this post has photos taken by Brianne of these adventures. In the afternoon I rejoined the group as we walked around and had lunch before heading back to the guaguas and Santiago. 

The trip back to Santiago involved a lot of sleeping, no breakdowns, and a warm greeting from my host family!



Monumental Moments-- Fall 2013, Issue I

STI DR banner Liberal Arts, GAP Year and PUCMM students stop for a quick photo atop the Divino Niño Monument in Constanza, Photo by Ryan Bowen¡BIENVENIDOS!  Students for F2013 Semester Arrived August 20th Ready to go on the treasure hunt "busqueda de tesoro", Photo by Jose Tejada  

As always, there was lots of excitement combined with both nervous and joyous smiles when the newly-arrived students for fall semester 2013´s Liberal Arts program at PUCMM in Santiago de los Caballeros met their host families on Tuesday, August 20th… but by the next morning, most were happily chatting about the warm acceptance by their new families.  
We spent the first day of orientation up in the mountains of Jarabacoa at Rancho Baiguate, where half a dozen of PUCMM´s Estudiantes de Apoyo (a volunteer support group) and Director of International Students met us.  Throughout the morning and early afternoon--with a lunch break to enjoy some delicious Dominican foods--students learned how to keep safe and healthy in the Caribbean tropics, basic tips to combat culture shock and cultural differences between Dominicans and U.S. Americans, and how to develop good relationships with their host families.  Afterwards, students enjoyed a dip in the swimming pool, explored the eco-trails, and enjoyed the playground equipment. Nisha checking out a daycare center to do volunteer service, Photo by Jose

Throughout the week of orientation, students got to exchange U.S. dollars for pesos, buy a cell phone, climb up the steps of the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration, got to know firsthand the City of Santiago, how to use public transportation, dance the basic steps of merengue, bachata, and salsa…  and so much more!  There were two more extensive sessions on cultural adaptation, an-depth overview of the classes available this fall and how former students had ranked them, a presentation explaining all of the extra-curricular CIEE activities planned for the semester, a tour of the campus, and a day trip to the Capital, where students had an historical walking tour of the Colonial Zone and visited the ruins of one of the earliest sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean.  Of course, orientation also covers those “must do” things like taking language-level exams and registering for classes.  Wednesday, August 28th was a free day, and the following day classes began at PUCMM.

 First CIEE Co-Pay Trip of the Semester—Playa Ensenada & Cayo Arena (September 8)En route to Cayo Arena, Photo by Jose Tejada

Every semester students vote on which two from a list of 20 or so different Co-Pay Trips they´d like to make—these trips are to places of historical, ecological, or cultural interest that are nearly impossible to get to without private transportation.  CIEE pays for the transportation and any guiding or entrance fees, and students bring or buy their own food and beverages.  For the first Co-Pay Trip this semester—for which we also invite the Estudiantes de Apoyo and PUCMM professors who work with our students—the students chose Playa Ensenada and Cayo Arena.  

Dinita, Scarlett and Lindsay at Playa Ensenada, Photo by Ryan's GoProIn an isolated region of the northwestern coast, this beach, where you rarely find any tourists, is ringed by mangrove swamps that are home to protected manatees and the occasional school of dolphins.  The boat ride to snorkel off Cayo Arena—a small, reef-encircled strip of sand that rises (barely) above the waves—costs extra, but most of the students chose to snorkel there and were glad that they did, for it is an amazing experience.Annie and Kassandra at playa Ensenada, Photo by Ryan Bowen  

  Rural Weekend Work Retreat  (September 20-22)

Group with Peace Corps volunteers and community members in front of the worksite, Photo by RyanThis semester’s volunteer rural retreat took to us back to the beloved town of La Solapa, nestled in the hills of the province of Altamira.  Over the past two years, CIEE student groups have served the residents of La Solapa by working alongside Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) on projects related to hygiene and potable water. The decision for this semester’s project (and every semester) was up to the community members to decide.  The community association decided that their small rented pharmacy should be moved to a new location, where they had been given land on which our students and community members could construct a new building together.  This met a major need—reducing the cost of maintaining an inexpensive supply of medicine for local residents.


Our weekend began with a brief introduction to the community members, then a tour of the community, hiking through a woodsy trail to visit the first aqueduct project that CIEE students built in 2012.  That evening we enjoyed some hearty country cooking: fresh vegetables, plantains, salami, fried eggs, and fried cheese!building blocks with the community, Photo by Jose

 On Saturday the construction commenced bright and early at 8:00 a.m., as some students cut out the foundation from the hard packed earth, and others sawed steel rebar to be used in the reinforced-concrete base of the building.  Once the perimeter trench was finished, the rebar was placed, and it was time for the mezcla (prepared wet cement mix) to be laid.  Soon thereafter we began laying cinder blocks—the primary construction material in the D.R.  It only took a few moments for us to realize how surprisingly difficult block laying can be…at first we struggled to get enough mortar, then failed to set the blocks level, then were told we were wasting too much cement.  After enough hiccups in the process, we left much of the block laying to the local experts and focused our group’s attention on preparing the cement mixture.  Suffice it to say, we all came away with a newfound appreciation for the painstaking process of cement construction. After sunset we cleaned up, ate another hearty starch-filled dinner, and then walked under the moonlight to the town’s discoteca to celebrate after a hard day’s work.  We danced away as the electricity came in starts and spurts; when the power went fully out, the disco owner fired up his 4x4 truck and blasted bachata rhythms from his vehicle’s radio to keep the party rocking.Dinita and Gabbie with the local girls, Photo by Annie CavanaughOn Sunday morning we continued to assist in the building process.  We wrapped it up at midday and joined together with the locals and PCVs who had housed us and gobbled up some delicious sancocho—a Dominican stew chock full of tuberous vegetables, plantains, chicken, and squash, all served over white rice with plenty of ripe avocado. Oh, and don’t forget the hot sauce!  After eating and the hard day’s work, nearly all the students slept throughout the entire ride back to Santiago. Evan chats with one of the younger residents of La Solapa, Photo by Annie Cavanaugh

One-Month-in-the-Country Meeting (September 23)

Students acting skits of how to navigate public transportation, Photo by Jose Tejada
  By the time students have been in Santiago for a month, most are starting to settle in and feel far more comfortable than when they first arrived—but it´s also when the “honeymoon period” wears off and a few students begin to have trouble accepting some of the inevitable socio-cultural adjustments that must be made.  To deal with the problems that some students may be experiencing, we hold this two-hour meeting every semester, where students are broken into small groups, each of which is assigned one of the common situations that may be problematical.  They prepare short skits and act out the situations, which are catalysts for an interactive discussion about each of the topics.  It´s a fun meeting and also very cathartic.  

LIVING HISTORY!  Hermanas Mirabal Museum and Ojos de Agua (September 27)Museo de las Hermanas Mirabal, Photo by Ryan

The Hermanas Mirabal are not only heroines in the Dominican Republic, but around the world.  The memory of Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal´s fight for a democratic government, as well as the memory of their bloody assassination on November 25, 1960, by orders of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, are honored every year on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  CIEE took our students to tour the museum just outside Salcedo that is dedicated to them and where their tombs are, as well as to the home where they grew up in the tiny pueblo of Ojos de Agua.  Today, there is a park across the street commemorating their lives and their deaths, and a brand new ecological walk.  Dedé Mirabal lives there to this day, the only surviving Mirabal sister—she raised her own son and all of her sisters´ children.  Normally she is available to speak with our students about her life and that of her sisters; unfortunately, this semester she was out of town. 

CIEE Co-Pay Trip #2:  Río Gurabo (October 4)

Crossing Rio Gurabo en route to the charco, Photo by JoseAfter a 45-minute hike up the Gurabo River, we arrived at the site known as Charco de los Indios—a series of enchanting natural pools descending from small rapids , dominated by the ruins of a giant, 50-feet-high sculpture in the background. This Cara Gigantesca (Giant Face) carved out of the side of a mountain is believed to be the only monumental artifact left by the indigenous population anywhere in the Caribbean.  Students swam in the pools, explored the canyon, climbed to the statue’s head, and—before heading back downstream—sat by the pools to enjoy a picnic lunch.  On our way back to Santiago, we stopped to unearth marine fossils from the hilly roadside, evidence of prehistoric geological activity. 

En route to the river, Photo by Jose
We also stopped to tour a casabe factory, where bitter yucca root is processed and turned into the round tortilla-like bread that was a staple in the diet of the pre-Columbian indigenous population and is still enjoyed to this day! Casabe Factory tour by Jose



REFRESHING!  Three-day Excursion to the Valley of Constanza (October 11-13)

August in the Dominican Republic is hot, and September is even hotter.  Temperatures in the low to mid-90s with high humidity feel good at first, but after five solid weeks of it, students who are accustomed to North American autumns are ready for the cool mountain nights and mornings in Constanza, the highest altitude city in the Caribbean. Guided by Miguel Luna (left) the group hikes up high into the hillas above the valley, by RyanYou know you´re no longer in Santiago when the bus climbs up, up, up the narrow serpentine road, with misty views of the Cibao Valley far below.  Then suddenly (well, an hour or so later) the bus climbs one last ridge and you are surrounded by myriad cloud-wrapped peaks that include Pico Duarte, which at over 10,000 feet is the tallest mountain in the Caribbean.  Then we descend a bit into a circular green valley that is also surrounded by mountain peaks—the Valley of Constanza, formed millions of years ago by a giant meteor strike.  Most of the valley´s color in late September comes from uncountable row after row of giant blue-green cabbages that spread upwards from the valley floor.  We stay at the Alto Cerro (“High Land”) Hotel, and students opted on Friday afternoon to hike to one of the tallest peaks in the valley of Constanza, a site in which a monument has been erected to the Divino Niño (Baby Jesus).   Nature blessed us with a beautiful rainbow--and then a downpour of rain for the hike down the mountain.Rainbow over the valley, by Ryan

Saturday we awoke to a delicious buffet breakfast, then we all rode in Safari trucks, this time up into the green pine forest surrounding Aguas Blancas, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean.  (Yes, this whole weekend was filled with record heights!)  Some of the students were intrepid enough to brave swimming in the frigid waters swirling beneath the falls.  That night, there was a BBQ and bonfire—complete with s’mores!  Sunday morning was free time that started out with another buffet breakfast and activity choices that included horseback riding, a ride to the town´s vegetable and flea markets, a paragliding trip taking off from a nearby peak and descending into the valley of Constanza (for the adrenaline junkies among us), sleeping in, or doing homework.  Then it was back to the heat of the lowlands after lunch, but somehow the heat always seems easier to take after a refreshing weekend in the mountains. The Takeoff by Gabby



Monumental Moments-- Spring 2013, Issue II

STI DR banner

Monumental Moments

Constanza Excursion—CIEE Reaching for the Heights! 

Constanza aguas blancas hike
Hiking up to the top of Aguas Blancas waterfall, tallest waterfall in the entire Caribbean

The weekend of March 8-10 provided students with quite a change from urban Santiago de los Caballeros.  We piled into two buses and headed up, up, up the mountains of the Cordillera Central—high enough to see Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in all the Caribbean, off to the northwest—to the Valley of Constanza, where the highest-elevation city in the Caribbean lies surrounded by a patchwork quilt of colors.  Up close, those colors are vast fields of strawberries, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, celery, broccoli, and other cool-weather vegetables, plus cultivated flowers of all kinds.

Hiking above the valley of Constanza, what a goofy bunch!
            We ate a delicious lunch at our Hotel Alto Cerro before splitting up into two groups.  The more adventurous of the two headed off with Ryan and a local guide to hike up the mountains beyond our hotel—they returned tired, but smiling widely over their accomplishment.  Those who are not as fond of hiking enjoyed a walking tour of part of the largest flower gardens in the region with Lynne and one of the company´s engineers, although we couldn´t explore all seven levels, which would have taken days of travel up, down, and around the surrounding mountains.  Afterward, we drove a little further so the students could explore the ruins of the Nueva Suiza Hotel, which was built under Trujillo´s orders in the 1950s as a super-deluxe hideaway for himself, his best buddies, and their mistresses.  

Safari trucks en route to Aguas Blancas

            Saturday, we all boarded what the Dominicans call “Jeep Safaris”—sturdy trucks with bench seats—to drive up the mountain to the tallest waterfalls in the Caribbean, Aguas Blancas.  A new hiking trail was just constructed last semester by a Dominican Corps of Forestry Engineers.  The views from up there were incredible!   Yasmine and Douglas jump Aguas BlancasThen we hiked back down to the lower level for a snack and so that brave souls could jump into and swim in the frigid waters at the foot of the falls.  That night, we all enjoyed a delicious BBQ and bonfire—with some smores, of course—behind the hotel.  Sunday was a free day before heading back down to Santiago.

To Market, To Market:  Day Trip to Dajabón and Monte Cristi

Dajabon Market by Doug Pentland
Couriers rush their wares back and forth all day long at the market.

On Friday, March 22, all of our students enrolled in the “Dominican-Haitian Relations” class, plus all others who wished to come along—and most did!—headed northwest to the border region at Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, the towns on either side of the Dominican-Haitian border.  Every Friday and Monday an event takes place that attracts thousands of people and millions of dollars—the “free market,” which isn´t really free, since only Haitians can cross over the bridge between the two republics (Dominicans and other foreigners must buy visas if they want to go over to the Haitian side) and Haitians must pay high customs taxes both on the products they bring to the D.R. to sell (mainly donated clothing, shoes, and purses that foreigners collect in clothing drives) and the desperately needed products that they buy on the Dominican side of the border to feed their hungry people.  There´s an informative class about the region´s history and economy aboard the bus, but the most educational part of the trip is seeing the seething masses buying, selling, and moving precariously overloaded carts and wheelbarrows back and forth over the bridge—or carrying towering packages on their heads. 

Playa Detras del Morro

Afterward, we enjoyed a buffet lunch in Monte Cristi and a refreshing swim at one of the most secluded and beautiful beaches in the country, the Playa Detrás del Morro in the nearby national park.



Rural Work Retreat #2 April 5-7

One of three latrines built over the weekend
Getting outside of your element is one of the most effective means to encourage growth, learning, and reflection. On the last weekend before final exams, half of our students volunteered to spend their time very much outside their normal element--doing hard labor in an extremely remote rural town called Dajao. The town was accessible only by taking a 4x4 vehicle or a motorcycle one hour into the mountains near the Haitian border. Working in collaboration with a local Peace Corps Volunteer couple, Scott and Meaghan, our service project involved building three latrine systems, one each in three of the town´s most needed areas. Some students spent the weekend digging out deep holes, and laying rock and mortar, while others mixed cement, bent rebar, sawed wood, and hammered throughout the day.

Violet showin some muscle
On the second day, we split into two separate teams to complete the remaining work, only to be met with torrential downpours all afternoon. Some students braved the rain and kept working despite the downfalls. It was a grueling, wet, and muddy way to spend the afternoon, but that night’s dinner and subsequent reflection and conversation time was nonetheless excellent.

Building latrines in Dajao, Dominican Republic

Sunday morning, most of us woke up early to the tune of the roosters´ crowing. After downing hot chocolate, coffee, and bread for breakfast, we once again split up into two groups to finish the two remaining latrines. By mid-morning, we had made enough progress to wrap up the project.  We packed  ourselves into the bed of a Daihatsu pickup truck and bid adieu to our new friends in Dajao. The ride back included time to take a refreshing bath in a river before meeting the bus that took us back to Santiago. 

Retiro de Trabajo packing up

Celebrating another Successful Semester with CIEE Liberal Arts  

Group at antillana-Sarah Babb

On Friday, April 12, CIEE Liberal Arts celebrated the ending of another successful semester with our obligatory Return to the U.S.A. Workshop for students, which deals with Reverse Culture Shock.  Then everyone pitched in to finish preparations for our Fiesta de Despedida, attended by all our current students, some former students who were here visiting, our host family members, PUCMM professors and administrators, administrators from PUCMM´s Office of International Students, the university´s volunteer Estudiantes de Apoyo, our wonderful drivers… and of course, the local on-site staff and their families.  Naysha (St. John Fisher College) and Douglas (Occidental College) were our gracious hosts, and student volunteers entertained us magnificently:  Sarah Buente (University of Evansville) sang a delightful solo in Spanish, Dan (Hope College) played his ukulele and sang a lively number, and Hannah (George Washington University) surprised everyone with her super-dynamic modern-dance exhibition, paired with our CIEE-PUCMM Intern, José. 

Despedida dance-sarah staples
The entire “Dominican Dance and Folklore” class showed off what they´d learned over the semester, and Abi (Lewis & Clark College) put together a nostalgic presentation of photos from all the semester´s activities, set to music, of course.  After dinner, everyone—students, host family members young and old alike, drivers, professors, staff—danced and danced.  What a great way to celebrate both our individual and group successes, including all our new friendships!

Caribbean Connections:  Folkloric Music and Dance

-- by Daniel Schriemer (Hope College)

Dominican folklore

            It’s always good to have connections--this is one fact that’s been reinforced for me over and over this semester in the Dominican Republic. Thanks to our connections with the CIEE staff, some of my friends and I were able to obtain free tickets to an event at the Gran Teatro del Cibao, a presentation called “Caribbean Folkloric Music and Dance in the Era of Globalization.” The presentation featured individuals and groups from various countries demonstrating their unique music and dance in an unmistakably lively Caribbean fashion. I was, however, surprised by how the term “Caribbean” was used for this event. There were performers from the Dominican Republic, Haiti,  and other countries traditionally considered to be Caribbean, but more peripheral areas such as Colombia and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico were also represented. I had no idea the Caribbean had such a wide cultural influence. My personal favorite part of the night was watching a folkloric dance group from right here in Santiago. Our dance professor from this semester, José Espinal, was one of the dancers, so it was that much more exciting for us. He’s got some incredible moves! The performance as a whole was very entertaining, and I’m glad that so many of us could go and experience it all for free!

How to Really Help Dominican Students Succeed Academically

—by Olivia Corya (Indiana University)


Here´s an abbreviated version of Olivia´s final assignment for her CIEE “Living and Learning in Santiago” class, which clearly shows how much she has come to understand and accept cultural difference during her immersion semester with CIEE Liberal Arts.)

            I volunteered weekly at a home for orphaned children run by nuns, working with two teenaged girls. My overarching goal was to raise their self-esteem and motivate them to reach their full potential. With this in mind, I asked each of them to prepare a presentation about “What it’s like in the Dominican Republic,” and explained that the purpose of the assignment was to give them practice with public speaking and to share their culture with me…. A week later, they showed me a single typed piece of paper filled with economic and political facts about the Dominican Republic (in terms that the girls didn´t even understand) that one of the nuns had printed off the Internet for them.

The incident frustrated me.  I put in a lot of effort coming up with ideas each week to motivate the girls and to teach them good work habits, and having the nun do their work for them defeated the purpose of both goals. But this incident did motivate me to redouble my efforts to understand their previous educational experiences—and my own. 

I now understand that my frustration arose from a clash of cultural values rooted in the U.S. American value of individualism and the Dominican value of communitarianism. I am very much a product of a society where, from a very young age, citizens are taught to practically worship the institution of the individual. We are told that we can each pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve the American dream (which in itself is, of course, very individualistic), that we are each unique and should celebrate our individual identities, etc. Part of this high importance placed on individualism is the idea that in school and work, a person’s success should depend on the merit of his or her own efforts.

This is a completely different reality from the one in which the girls I tutored live. They were born in a communitarian society, where a person’s success depends as much on their relationships with other people as it does their own effort. Not only is helping one’s fellow students or coworkers accepted to a degree that looks like cheating to the untrained U.S. American eye, but this communitarian-based value is so strong that doing so is encouraged. People are supposed to help each other because it’s the “right thing to do,” just as in the U.S. the “right thing to do” in academic situations is to make everyone do their own work.

As a U.S. American, the value of individualism has been engrained within me since the day of my birth, and I do firmly believe in the benefits of doing one’s own work, thus I was upset that the girls were missing out on important lessons and growth opportunities by letting the nun do their work for them.  Also, I am not yet advanced enough along the intercultural understanding spectrum to be able to completely shed my cultural biases, so there’s not much I can do about believing in the benefits of doing one’s own work. What has changed for me, however, since this incident occurred is my initial perception that the girls were being lazy and not taking their homework seriously. This wasn’t the case. They were simply doing their homework in the way their culture has taught them is appropriate. Understanding this cultural difference has taken away much of my initial frustration.

The incident also makes more sense when I think about it through the cultural literacy lens. I didn’t understand why a good person—a nun!—would be complicit in allowing the girls to slack off their homework assignment. Understanding that she was helping them because she thought it was the right thing to do makes me feel much more comfortable about my relationship with her, and shows me that she doesn’t disrespect me and the volunteer work I do, which is what I had feared.

            The other cultural value that clashed in this incident relates to perceptions about authority. In the United States, we prize questioning authority, and in this country, they prize following it. This basic difference explains why the girls thought they were doing a great job by reading off statistics from an authoritative source, and why I thought they were doing an abysmal job by doing that exact thing. I hadn’t wanted them to tell me what experts said about the Dominican Republic—I wanted them to be the experts! I wanted them to reflect on their own experiences. I wanted them to think, to analyze, to create, and they had simply regurgitated.

            Yet to the girls, what I had asked them to do seemed so ridiculous that they didn’t even know how to interpret it, and so they tweaked the assignment to fit what they were familiar with. To succeed in school here, they are asked to cite authoritative figures, not to think for themselves. It would be a silly embarrassment for them to “research” their country by simply reflecting on their own experiences! So instead, they did what normally impresses their teachers and earns them good grades, which is finding an official-looking source and presenting the information without adding unnecessary personal opinions, which would have just diminished the authority of their research.

The girls were not, as I initially assumed, trying to take a shortcut. I really believe they thought something along the lines of, “There’s no way she actually wants us to just say what we think about this country, because no one’s ever asked us to do anything like that before! We must not have understood her. We’ll just find out what important people say about this subject and do the project like we usually do school work.”

Understanding how mine and the girls’ cultural values regarding authority differ greatly eased my frustration with the incident.

My mistake was forgetting how different the U.S. American and Dominican educational systems are. A month ago, I believed the solution should have been for me to have more clearly explained the requirements and purpose of the assignment to the girls before setting them loose to do it. I now believe that that would have been a pretty poor solution. Since then I shaped my assignments to be simultaneously challenging for them and more familiar to them in format. Although I genuinely believe (and yes, I’m aware of my cultural bias here) that the Dominican educational system would be doing a great favor to its students if it prioritized individual work over doing work for each other and critical thought over regurgitating authorities’ thoughts, this system is not going to change any time soon, and in the meantime it is still the system these girls have to navigate in order to succeed. In their society, success isn’t based on individual merit the way it is in the U.S., thus encouraging them to work individually could actually hurt them! By relying on their friends and family to do their school work, they are essentially practicing for their real work, in which they will one day also need to rely on networking and personal relationships to succeed.

 Got Heart

by Hannah Feintuch (George Washington University)


Santiago is called the City of Heart, la ciudad de Corazón, but before this weekend, I didn’t really feel that Santiago had all that much “heart.” Of course my host family and professors are incredibly nice, but it wasn’t until I stepped away from the neighborhood where I live and stepped onto the unpaved roads of a barrio called Cienfuegos that I felt it—warmth, community and neighborly love. Cienfuegos isn’t really where I expected to find it. The barrio is known to be one of the poorest and most unsafe areas in Santiago with high unemployment rates and a high number of less-educated residents. I wet for a class assignment, and I asked the maid in my house if she would be my guide. In most middle class families, it’s typical to have a worker who either lives in the house or apartment or comes daily to cook and clean. Carolina is 22, and even though works every day for my host mom, she’s really part of the family.  She agreed to take a few of my friends and me to the barrio and to show us around the neighborhood where her real family lives. 

            It was amazing how quickly the landscape around us changed when the taxi dropped us off in Cienfuegos. Suddenly streets were unpaved, sewer water ran along the sides of the roads, and people were everywhere. I watched kids playing on parked motorcycles, “flying” kites made of plastic bags and string, and climbing trees.  Houses here were no longer apartment buildings with underground car garages but small and dilapidated wooden and tin homes. The view from one of the highest points in the barrio was beautiful but included rising smoke from a nearby dump where trash is burnt.  The scenery itself was a jolt for me, but what surprised me more was the people that I met.

            It didn’t take long before we attracted the attention of some kids who promptly took our hands and told us they wanted to show us their houses. Not knowing what to do, we awkwardly followed. What would their parents say when a group of strangers showed up at their door with their six year old? The answer? “Come in! Please sit down.” Unlike anything I’ve experienced in the US, perfect strangers welcomed us into their homes. When we arrived at Carolina’s house, we were shown the same hospitality. Family members were sent running to buy us first Coke and cookies and then beer. Our cups were never even half empty before they were re-filled, and her family pulled up plastic chairs to ask us what we thought of the country. After chatting and dancing merengue (her brother challenged me to show off my moves), they arranged for a car to take us home—but only with the promise to return for a meal.

            I wouldn’t have thought that I could feel so at home in a house lit by a bare bulb and surrounded by grazing chickens and lazy stray dogs. If I were hadn’t studied societal problems in the DR, I probably would have used this experience as motivation to try to make things better according to my standards. Unfortunately, now that I better understand the system, I realize that in the next two months there is nothing I can do to improve Cienfuegos. I cannot give them reliable electricity or running water or pave their roads. The things that I could give them—a flatscreen tv or internet may in fact do more harm than good. My gifts might ostracize the family from their community or put them at risk for crime. I realize that helping a community or family is complicated. So instead I’m trying to better myself-- to use the people I met there as inspiration to be warmer, friendlier and more open. To remember that my afternoon in Cienfuegos reminded me of how fortunate I am, not only to have a reliable roof over my head but also to have the opportunity to learn from people of different backgrounds –people who really and truly have heart.




A Few Days in Haiti

I recently spent a few days in Haiti. I returned to Santiago with a new perspective and a motive for change. This is why I travel. Haiti- HatOn November 2, 2012 I and about 16 other students made the trip from Santiago to Cabo-Haitiano/Cap-Haitïen/Cape Haitian on the north coast of Hispaniola. At around 5AM, once everyone in the group had arrived to our meeting point on campus we made our way in the guagua (bus) to the DR-Haiti border. Only three hours away, it was incredible to see the difference between these two countries which share the same island.

At the border in Dajabon, there was a constant traffic of people. I suppose this is common to most border areas, but I was especially surprised by this case. I saw tons of people crossing the border into DR, many carrying goods to sell at the nearby market. Groups of Haitian women were lined up at the DGM (La Direccion General de Migracion) waiting to be escorted to their day jobs in the Dominican Republic. According to our Resident Coordinator, these women had previously only needed a badge to cross into the DR for their work... now the process is much more lengthy and convoluted.

After a long wait at the border, sorting out the paperwork and money, we finally crossed into Haiti and made our way to Milot, the first stop on our short adventure. I will say that in my short lifetime I've interacted with lots of children from different parts of the world, but none as animated and joyful as the children I encountered in Haiti. While sitting in the guagua in Milot and waiting for our tour guides to arrive, we played with the kids standing on the sidewalk just a few feet away from our bus. One of the boys in our group got a kick out of making faces with the children and seeing their reaction. It was really the best welcome we could have received.

After driving up a steep and often muddy mountain (insert applause for the incredible Chauffeur Don Hector), we finally arrived at the  Citadelle Laferrière. The Citadelle is actually one of Haiti's most well-known landmarks. It has been recognized as the largest fortress in the Americas. Pretty astounding. The Citadelle was constructed under the leadership of Henri Cristophe, a significant figure in the Haitian Revolution, following Haiti's independence from France at the start of the 19th century.

I'll never forget the crowd that approached our guagua when we first arrived at the entrance to this historic area. Somewhere between 60 and 100 people, most selling small goods, approached our bus when they saw our bus approaching. A few people in the group bought hats and bracelets while we were there. We began our walk up to the Citadelle, led by a few tour guides from Milot. Nearly every person from our group was also accompanied by a younger Haitian male. My partner, a young man named Steven, served as a history guide, a Haitian-Creole teacher, and motivator all over the course of the hike up to the Citadelle. And what a hike it was! In the heat of midday we scaled steep hills only to find more hills to climb. The sight was well worth it. Once we arrived at the Citadelle, we split up into small groups and began our tour around the area.Haiti- Tread CarefullyHaiti- Camp LaneayBoth the Citadelle and our later stop at San-Souci Palace were some of the greatest highlights of my visit to Haiti in the beginning of November. I've had the opportunity to learn about the history of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution in my university classes, and it was incredible to experience that history so up-close and to also see the pride that Haitians have for their country.
Haiti- RyanHaiti- Palacio San SouciHaiti- KhemaniThat night, everyone was very tired from the long walks around the landmarks, so we had a chance to just relax at our beautiful hotel for the evening. Our hotel in Cabo-Haitiano had a gorgeous view overlooking the beach. In the evening, we enjoyed hamburgers, fries, and some Haitian Prestige and passed the time away playing Mafia, riddles, and other fun games.

 The next day, we made the trip to Labadee. This is a very well-known beach on the north coast of Haiti, but not everyone is aware of its whereabouts. That is because many cruise liners will take their guests to this gorgeous beach and only mention that it is on the island of Hispaniola, not that it is in Haiti. We enjoyed the sun and sand, and visited two different beaches over the course of our day there.Haiti- Khemani 3On the ride back from the beach, I got to talking with a gentleman who started a non-profit organization in Port-au-Prince. His focus has been on feeding the over-populated, urban areas by starting small gardens. It’s a program called Growing Haiti. We discussed a lot of the ways that Haiti is portrayed in the U.S. media, sources of aid that have not come through since the 2010 earthquake, and some of the harsh realities of modern-day Haiti. It was really an insightful conversation that got me thinking more deeply about the things I was seeing during my time there.Keke and JanaThat evening, we went out to eat at a nice restaurant near the sea. I spoke with the same gentleman I was talking to earlier, and he told me about his travels throughout Central America, exploring the African diaspora in various Latin American countries. It was all so fascinating. After we finished up eating, we all went out to a discothèque in the city and danced to reggae, electronic music, and Rihanna. It was completely unlike any discoteca or típico I've gone to in the Dominican Republic, but enjoyable nonetheless.

 Finally on our last day in Haiti, we woke up and headed out to do some last minute souvenir shopping at an artisan market. I picked up a few carved stones and some bracelets to bring back. We also visited one last landmark, the Monument of the Vertieres. The sun was beating down on us by this point, but we took pictures and talked about the historical significance of the monument before hopping back into the guagua and heading home to Santiago.

 Although it was a very short trip, I will never forget the things that I saw and learned about Haiti during these few days. I am glad that I had the opportunity to see the modern-day reality of this island nation, which so often is portrayed maliciously by U.S. media outlets. I hope to one day return, and hopefully for a longer span of time. And I also plan to share my experience in Haiti with more people, so that they too can learn about the modern-day situation there, it’s something which I feel everyone ought to know.