¡Bienvenidos! Arrival in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic (January 2)
It seems as if it were just yesterday that our new CIEE Liberal Arts students were arriving for the spring 2014 semester, lugging their suitcases and pressing toward us on-site staff—smiling and holding CIEE signs, of course—through all the other people at the airport who were hugging, kissing, and excitedly greeting friends and relatives in a cacophony of rapid-fire Dominican Spanish, Kreyól, and English. It was the day after New Years, and while excited to be here, you could also tell that our students were a bit nervous, some more than others. “Will they like me? Will I like them?” were the unspoken questions in everyone´s mind about meeting both us and their host families. “Will I love it here or should I turn around right now and go back home?” are also questions that pass through students´ minds every semester upon arrival.
By early the next morning, however, as students were dropped off by their host families to board a bus for our first full day of orientation up in the mountains of Jarabacoa at Rancho Baigüate, the students´ smiles were bigger and no longer forced, the nervousness replaced by joy as they found seats and began cheerfully chatting about the delightful afternoon and evening they had spent with their respective host families. Throughout the morning and early afternoon—with a lunch break to enjoy some delicious Dominican foods—we all discussed how to keep safe and healthy in the Caribbean tropics, basic tips to better understand and accept cultural differences between Dominicans and U.S. Americans, and how to develop and maintain good relationships with their host family members. Members of PUCMM´s Estudiantes de Apoyo, a volunteer support group of Dominican and Haitian university students, came to speak with our new students about Dominican attitudes toward alcohol and drugs, dating, how to “dress Dominican,” the safe use of public transportation, and other topics of common interest to all university students. With a little more than hour to spare before returning to Santiago, most took advantage of the beautiful swimming pool just outside our meeting room—later their friends and family members back home surely received emails and Facebook messages about how they went swimming in the bright sunshine and warm temperatures of a typical Dominican day in January.
Throughout the jam-packed week of orientation, students were taken to exchange U.S. dollars for pesos, buy a cell phone, climb up the steps of the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration for a birds´ eye view of Santiago, and get to know firsthand the most important places in the city as well as how to use public transportation by participating in a CIEE Treasure Hunt. There were also two more extensive sessions on cultural adaptation, an-depth overview of the classes available this semester (held the day before class registration) and how former students had ranked said classes, a presentation detailing all of the extra-curricular CIEE activities planned for the semester, a tour of the campus, and a full-day trip to the Capital, where students enjoyed an historical walking tour of the Colonial Zone, had time to eat and explore, and visited the ruins of some of the earliest sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. They did so much more, including learning the basic steps of merengue, bachata, and salsa, which is something everyone should know in order to enjoy life if Santiago. Of course, orientation also covered those “must do” things like taking language-level exams and registering for classes, which began on Monday, January 13.
FIRST CIEE CO-PAY TRIP OF THE SEMESTER—PLAYA ENSENADA & CAYO ARENA (January 26)
For the first Co-Pay Trip this semester—for which we also invite the Estudiantes de Apoyo (PUCMM volunteer students), CIEE Teach Abroad professors, and PUCMM professors who work with our students—the students chose Playa Ensenada and Cayo Arena. Every semester it´s one of the students´ favorite elective trips. The beach is located in an isolated region of the northwestern coast, and relatively few foreign tourists frequent its shores, making it an authentic Dominican beach experience. For the nature buffs interested in the ecology of the region, it is surrounded by mangrove swamps that provide refuge 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, as one of our students, Eliza Kenney (Hamilton College) shared in her personal blog:
Today, I didn’t have to find a tiny beautiful moment, because the entire day was filled with them. Today, I went snorkeling and didn’t have a panic attack–sea urchins and I are still not friends, but at least now we have a mutual understanding. I ate a fried fish that still had all the bones and eyes and fins and teeth. I rode 25 minutes on a crazy boat ride (my butt is literally bruised) to the most beautiful island/sandbar that I ever could have dreamed of.
Today, it hit me straight up in the face: I am living in paradise for the next three months. Maybe every day won’t be spent next to crystal clear, indescribably turquoise water, soaking in the sun, and conquering fears. Actually, I hope that every day isn’t like that, because I’m sunburned as hell. But this city, this country, every bit and part of it, can be paradise if I make it so.
SAMANÁ, THE PENINSULA THAT ALMOST BECAME A PART OF THE U.S.A. (January 31-February 3)
Just before Guantánamo in Cuba became the U.S. military base that would guard the U.S.´s “back yard,” there were plans to establish the military base on the Samaná Peninsula in northeastern Dominican Republic. In part, this was because of the settlement of the peninsula in the 1820s by several hundred families of former African American slaves, who had run to freedom up the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia, then accepted an invitation from the President of the Republic of Haiti (who ruled the entire island from 1822-1844) to settle here instead of going to Liberia. Even today, many of Samana´s residents still speak English as a native language (along with Spanish) and have the reputation of being hard working Protestants.
It´s not the unusual history and culture, however, that bring most of the tens of thousands of tourists to Samaná every year—it´s the tropical, relatively unspoiled paradise that Samaná evokes, with its towering mountains, turquoise bay and warm Atlantic waters, white sand beaches, more gently swaying coconut palms that you can possibly ever count, its friendly residents, and its fast-growing list of fabulous resorts and unique bed and breakfast spots.
The new “Bulevard Atlantico” that skirts the peninsula´s Atlantic Coast is virgin territory right now, but it won´t be long before tourism converts it to end-to-end resorts. That´s why our students particularly enjoy our excursion here—we get to enjoy swimming in the tropical Atlantic, boating on the Samaná Bay, seeing the abundant bird life and pictograph-filled caves in nearby Los Haitises National Park, and hiking up to Salto El Limón, one of the most beautiful waterfalls on the island, while staying at a delightful aparta-hotel on the beach in Las Terrenas. What a stunning weekend! None of us ever wants to come back to his or her studies or work in the CIEE Study Center… but Samaná remains as a delightful dream, as a destination that everyone who comes back to visit dreams of going back to.
ONE MONTH IN THE COUNTRY MEETING (February 3)
"the concho experience" by Taylor, Kristen and Britney
At around the one month point many students are feeling well acclimatized, while others may be at a critical point and could go into culture shock. For this reason we unite students as the final orientation activity to express how their experience has been, vent on what challenges they have been going through, and laugh about it all through the use of improvised skits.
This semester we received the very unfortunate news that Dedé Mirabal—the sole surviving sister of the four Mirabal heroines—passed away in early February, only a few weeks before our Service Learning and Liberal Arts programs joined together to visit the museum dedicated to them.
We have enjoyed many years visiting the museum and doña Dedé, who has always received students and their questions with open arms and an open heart. We were in a somber mood, therefore, when our staff and students arrived this semester at the Hermanas Mirabal Museum in Hermanas Mirabal Province. Students took the house-museum tour, which houses relics from the girls´ childhood and revolutionary lives—those lives were cut short when Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s henchmen ordered Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa beaten to death with clubs on November 25, 1961, because they were trying to tear down his increasingly violent 30-year-long dictatorship. Afterwards, we visited the Ecoparque de la Paz (Peace Ecopark),a property that was donated to the local municipality by the late Dedé Mirabal.
The United Nations General Assembly dedicated November 25th as The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in honor of the Hermanas Mirabal.
Reflections from the Seminar on Living and Learning in Santiago, Dominican Republic
A two credit course that explores the dimensions of culture and promotes reflection on intercultural misunderstandings.
“On Piropos (Cat Calls)” by Shannon Lee, Kenyon College
As for other students…just go for it. In order to acquire cultural literacy, you must actively participate, which means acting and reacting to the culture and people. Sometimes there are people passing and they say a quick piropo and you never see them again. In my case and possibly future cases, these were people I saw frequently as I walked to class. It just made the walk awkward by ignoring them. That uncomfortable and awkward feeling should have called my attention right away, but I was unknowingly put in a learning zone.
“On Relationships and Culture,” by Taylor Anne-Esparza, Occidental College
…My advice to future students and to myself as well, is to not sit around and wait for the answers to just appear before you, because they won’t. As soon as you begin to realize a pattern occurring in relation to a cultural aspect that you do not understand, investigate and ask around. Do not just let it pass you by as another cultural difference you don’t understand.”
Three-day Excursion to Constanza (March 7-9)
You know you´re no longer in Santiago when you climb 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.
On Friday morning, we departed extra early to arrive at the Ebano Verde nature preserve for a hike down the one of the Central Mountain Range´s protected ecological areas, and the only place known to have the Green Magnolia. We set off along with our two trailblazing tour guides for the next two and a half hours, crossing rivers and streams, stopping at forest ranger stations, and learning about the exotic flora such as carnivorous plants, mosses, ferns, and the like. When we finally arrived at trails end, most were exhausted and eager to hop back on the bus and head up for lunch at our hotel.
It didn´t take long to arrive at the Alto Cerro(“High Land”) Hotel, where we checked-in and devoured a buffet lunch. Later that afternoon, we took a guided bus tour throughout the Valley of Constanza to see the industrial-agricultural installations as well as historical-cultural sites such as the ruins of Dictator Trujillo’s Hotel Nueva Suiza, and the best candy shops in the region.
On Saturday we awoke to a delicious buffet breakfast, then took a mountain ride in Safari trucks into the green pine forests surrounding Aguas Blancas, the highest waterfall in the Caribbean. After hiking up the side of the falls, we returned to the lower basin, where some of the students and CIEE Teach professors who accompanied us were adventurous enough to dive in and swim in the frigid waters swirling beneath the falls. We returned that night to enjoy a BBQ dinner and roast s´mores over a bonfire. Sunday was a free day in which some visited the town´s central market; a few rode horses at the hotel, while others rested up leisurely after the previous days´ strenuous activities.
RURAL WEEKEND WORK RETREAT (March 21-23)
This semester’s volunteer rural retreat was held in the mountain towns of Pedro García and Tubagua, working alongside Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and local NGOs to create ecotouristic attractions in the rural countryside. Our project was constructing a panoramic viewing area that overlooks the northern coast from the touristic highway along the mountain ridge.
On Friday morning, we arrived in Pedro Garcia, met the leaders of the community development agency, and then visited their latest ecotourism attraction—a guided hike through a coffee plantation. While we walked, we were given the history of this region that, due to agricultural plagues in the 1990s, abandoned its traditional coffee industry in favor of livestock farming. This has wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem and now the guided hike is among the many efforts to educate the public and locals in the hopes of returning to the permaculture practices of the modern coffee plantation.
After our hike, we shuttled to the worksite, which was 45 minutes down the road, and began clearing the construction site for the viewing area. Many of the students grabbed machetes and learned how to be a human lawnmower, while others got to work with shovels and picks, clearing away the undergrowth. By Friday evening, we had worked up a healthy appetite. Upon returning to Pedro Garcia, we all chowed down on a delicious asopao (soupy rice).
Saturday was our main work day, so we left early for the worksite and got our hands dirty once more while picking, shoveling, and reshaping the earth. We even chopped down a few rotted palm trees (Timber….!!!), which we soon learned were formerly a safe haven for both a snake and a tarantula. After a grueling day of manual labor, during which we made great advances, we discovered there was still a hefty task ahead of us.
On Sunday morning, we leveled earth and laid down decorative gravel. By the time we wrapped up at midday, we were all eager to join with the locals and PCVs at the Tubagua Ecolodge, where we gobbled up some delicious spaghetti before taking off down the mountain for Santiago.
THE BORDER REGION OF DAJABON & MONTECRISTI (April 4)
The border region that separates the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti has been rife with bloodshed and fighting between the two poor countries that share the same small island for several centuries. Today the fighting is mostly over scarce resources: food, jobs, and land and materials to establish a home, no matter how humble. Every Friday and Monday in the border town of Dajabón, however, the “fight” is for Haitians to see how many times they can cross the border between 8 AM and 3 PM, for those are the two days of the week when Haitians can cross the border free of charge to sell their wares on the Dominican side—donated shoes, purses, clothing, and domestic items, Haitian rum, homegrown garlic…. Then they spend the money from what they´ve sold to buy foods that are not available in Haiti.
Somewhere around $22 million pesos (approximately US$512,000) per day changes hands on each of the two weekly market days, much of it illegally to pay bribes for those who cross the border earlier than 8 AM (on foot through the river). This is colloquially called “paying the wet Customs Duty” as opposed to the official “dry” Customs Duty in the Dominican government offices.
Our students were able to join the human stream crossing to the middle of the bridge that spans the aptly named Río Masacre that delineates the border. “Watch out!” we constantly screamed, for the bridge is jam packed with mostly barefoot porters, both male and female, pushing and pulling carts and wheelbarrows, and carrying impossibly large parcels on top of their heads while frantically trying to make as many trips as possible, for each trip means more money. They have no time to stop and let our students pass by, for they and their families are desperately hungry.
After crossing the bridge as far as we could go—to the division between the two republics—we all had about an hour and a half to tour the market itself, with its mountains of merchandise of all kinds and vendors trying to out yell each other to attract our attention. Why? Because we stand out and look like we might have money to spend.
On the way home, we went to Monte Cristi, still in the border region, but to the north of Dajabón, to have lunch in a restaurant where the anti-Trujillo revolutionary movement used to meet, for which the town´s port was closed and still is. Afterward we saw the region´s salt evaporation pens, and swam at the stunningly beautiful but isolated Playa Detrás del Morro—the Beach Behind the Morro (Columbus named it that because the dominant mountain there reminded him of a Moorish war tent).
RETURN TO THE U.S.A. WORKSHOP AND FIESTA DE DESPEDIDA (April 25)
Our students have frequently told us that they are very glad we make them attend a Return to the U.S.A. Workshop, which includes an intensive session on Reverse Culture Shock, since it hits them harder than Culture Shock upon arrival in the Dominican Republic. What in the world!?! OK, it sounds strange, but it´s very true--upon arrival, everyone is expecting to have some cultural shocks, but they are NOT expecting to have cultural shock upon their return home. Furthermore, there is little compassion from friends and family members for those who do suffer Reverse Culture Shock. This workshop helps our students recognize what is happening and get through it much faster. After the workshop, everyone pitches in to complete setting up for our incredible Fiesta de Despedida (Going Away Party).
This semester was the very first time that students and professors from all of our CIEE Santiago programs came together to celebrate a very busy and change-filled, but nonetheless successful semester together with our now-famous Fiesta de Despedida: Liberal Arts, Service Learning, Gap Year Abroad, and Teach Abroad at PUCMM. Students publically thanked their professors at both PUCMM and ALPI, the administrators at both institutions, the communities in which they had worked, their host families, the Estudiantes de Apoyo at PUCMM (volunteer students), our faithful drivers, and of course their CIEE on-site staff members for an intensive but fun and goal-fulfilling experience. Students also acted as the evening´s hosts and entertainers… and everyone enjoyed together a fabulous dinner and dancing to the move-your-feet rhythms of merengue, bachata, salsa, and reggatón.