Monday, April 5, 2010

T+K: An Island Love Story

February 25, 2010 was the night my life changed forever. This was the night that my fiancé, Tim, asked the question that all girls dream of hearing one day...

Tim and I met on the Fourth of July, 2008, at a Peace Corps gathering on the most beautiful beach in the world. This secluded beach (called Bahía de las Águilas) is reachable by a 20-min boat ride through radiant Caribbean blue waters and high cliffs. We were introduced during this fiesta, but we didn’t have a chance to talk one-on-one much. Over the next few months, we passed each other every now and then in the Peace Corps office or during other PC get-togethers, but the sparks didn’t really fly until that Thanksgiving. It was then that we were able to have a good long conversation and realized that we had a lot in common. Our first real date took place about a week later in Santo Domingo at a local pizzeria called Pizzarelli.

From our first date, the sparks blossomed into an exciting romance. We had to battle poor cell phone reception and 7-hour bus rides to visit each other, but despite it all, we found ourselves being pulled closer and closer together. Tim told me he loved me on February 24, 2009, and I eagerly told him likewise.

We spent the next year visiting each other when possible, meeting up in the capital, and even going to America together to meet each other’s families and friends. We got along amazingly well with everyone, and we couldn’t believe how perfectly God seemed to have prepared us for one another. It seemed to be destiny.

After the trip to the states, I became extremely busy in my site. I had four months to build 28 wood-burning cook stoves and create a functioning library in the local elementary school. Tim kept me sane through all his encouragement and pitching in to help. All the work got done, and then it was time for me to go. I didn’t want to leave the country in November as scheduled though. Tim still had until May to complete his service. I decided to extend my time in country, but I wanted to do something different. I also wanted to be closer to Tim if possible. So Tim asked a local priest if he knew of any projects in the south that would benefit from my service for the next 6 months. The priest responded by saying that he could use my help working in the surrounding one-room schools attended by mostly Dominican-born Haitian children living in the mountains to teach them about basic hygiene. My boss agreed that it was a worthwhile project, and Tim and I were thrilled that we’d be living only a 30-min motorcycle ride away from each other. Tim and I moved all my stuff across the country on public transportation in mid-November and I settled into my new home, living with an eccentric 77-year old woman. We celebrated our 1-year anniversary in December and began planning our return to America in May. Tim applied to grad schools and I started to look into the teaching job market, wondering where the future would take us. Little did I know, Tim had been plotting something special for months.

We went to the capital to discuss the Haiti earthquake relief work we had been involved with and to celebrate my 26th birthday. Tim asked if I wanted to go to Pizzarelli that night (Feb 25). I never turn down pizza, so I said of course. Earlier that day, Tim had been running around the city, supposedly shopping for my birthday present. It turns out that he had been preparing the final details of the proposal.

The whole plot started back in September last year when Tim contacted my high school friend, Christie (jeweler), about engagement rings. After months of secretive correspondence, Tim finally chose the perfect ring. The only problem was that the ring was in Michigan. How was he going to get it to the Dominican Republic? Tim’s dad happened to be in Grand Rapids for work, so he kindly picked up the ring from Christie. Unfortunately the mailing system to the Dominican Republic is unreliable and packages tend to “get lost” in transit, so our Country Director, Romeo, graciously allowed Tim to use the diplomatic postal service through the US embassy to ensure the ring’s safety. Tim received the ring on February 25, and he couldn’t wait another day to pop the question.

Tim was acting nervous on our walk to dinner that night, and it reminded me of our first date. After all, we were going to the same pizzeria as that memorable day. He was dressed nicer than usual with dress shoes and even hair gel. He also carried a mysterious package in his hand. I asked him why he was bringing a present with him to dinner, because my birthday wasn’t for two more days. Shouldn’t he wait? He told me that it was a belated Valentine’s Day/ anniversary of when we first said “I love you” present. I kind of rolled my eyes, but went with the flow.

When we arrived to the restaurant, only one other customer was there. Tim ordered a Margharita pizza before we even sat down, which I found odd. He then insisted on sitting at the table of our first date, which really made me curious. Then he asked if I wanted my present. Of course I did! He handed me over a blue bag, where inside I found a Dominican style photo album that can be bought at any tourist shop or major grocery store. I started flipping through the pictures, which went along with a silly, but beautiful poem that Tim had written about our relationship entitled, “An Island Love Story.” I could feel my heart beating faster as I turned the pages and became even more suspicious that something big was about to happen. It was too intimate of a gift to be a “just because” occasion. My hunch was confirmed when I turned to the last page and it read, “Kimberly Sue Dykwell, Will You Marry Me?” Nestled inside the opposite page was the most beautiful diamond ring I have ever seen. Tim says that I yelled out something like “What!” or “Wow!” but I really don’t recall. I started to shake and tears formed in my eyes as Tim dropped to one knee and told me how much he loved me. He said that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me and asked me again to marry him. I said yes right away and then couldn’t stop saying yes as he put the ring on my finger. It was a magical proposal. I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Tim and I can’t wait to share the photo album with family and friends when we get back to the states. We have yet to set a wedding date in stone, but we are planning for summer 2011. Hope to see you all in May!!

Haiti Earthquake Relief

Two weeks after the destructive earthquake that struck Haiti in January, Peace Corps officials asked me to help out with some of the relief work. Two other PC volunteers and I were originally sent by USAID to the hospital nearest to where I live to write an overall report of the situation. Injured people were being sent to hospitals on the Dominican side of the border, and USAID was interested in knowing about the situation and how they could help. When we first arrived to the scene, we found about 50 Haitian patients in the nurses’ ward. There were eight patients to a room and lots of family members and a few Creole/Spanish translators. The nurses and med students were tending to the wounds in the first room I entered. It was really difficult to see leg amputation wounds being cleaned and pins in limbs. One child went blind from the hit she received. All I felt was sadness and compassion for everyone. The volunteers and I tried to help out, but since we didn’t have medical backgrounds and the nurses seemed to have everything under control, we felt kind of useless. That night, we decided to write up a survey to ask patients in order to get a sense of patient need and quality care. Our hearts broke over and over the next day as the patients told us (through translators) their stories. Most of them showed so much courage and bravery. One girl was there all alone. She had been in a university that fell on her during the earthquake. Her leg had been amputated and she had no idea if any of her family was alive and vice versa. Through it all though, she still seemed so strong. This was just one of thousands of stories.

We learned a lot about the patient care from the surveys. Overall, the hospital was running as well as it normally did. Like the schools here, the hospitals have a long way to go as well. There is usually a lot of discrimination against Haitians in the DR, so we were happy to see that they seemed to be getting pretty good care. The biggest complaint from patients was that there was no water to drink. When we asked the hospital director about this, he informed us of a closet stocked full of donated water in the basement. Apparently no one had told the nurses. Once we set a schedule with the translators to go pick up water every day for the patients, we were off to the border where the need for our help was greater.

When I arrived to Jimaní right on the Dominican side of the border, things were chaotic. We were sent to a field hospital that was being run by mostly American volunteers. There were also teams from Spain, Guatemala, Canada, and the DR. Peace Corps volunteers had taken over most of the logistics of the operation. At first, the hospital was just sending out dead bodies with no record, letting people practice medicine without proof of license, and everything was completely unorganized. Within a few weeks though, the PC volunteers set up a computer system to provide administrative and logistical support. I was only there for 3 days, but it seemed like a month. We worked 18 hours straight a day, and there was always something to do. I pretty much ran around doing random errands, handed out food to patients (which was a nightmare), held “school” for some of the kids, ran the front desk (a coffee table), translated, interviewed the people in charge, and wrote another report for USAID. I was happy to help out the relief work in some way, especially since I live so close to where the earthquake took place. The interactions I made with the Haitians that week will stay in my heart forever, and I hope that they are finding peace. Haiti is still in dire need, especially with the rainy season coming up. Please continue your prayers.

Life in the Deep South

I’ve been so busy these past couple months with Haiti earthquake relief, going to my old site to build a couple more stoves, participating in an eye medical mission, doing my final medical tests, working on Tim’s library, and even getting engaged! Time has flown by and it’s almost time to leave. It seems like I just moved to the south a couple weeks ago. When I wasn’t busy doing any of the above mentioned things, I spent much of the past six months working at poor, one-room schoolhouses in the surrounding mountains that are attended by mostly Dominican-born Haitians. An American priest is my project partner, and together we visit nine elementary schools by frightening motorcycle rides to teach basic hygiene and nutrition principles as well as to share different teaching methods with the teachers. It has truly been a challenge, but I’ve learned to be creative. These schools have next to nothing in materials, and the teachers attempt to teach grades pre-K through 8th grade at the same time. School is only in session from around 8am-noon Monday-Thursday. The teachers don’t show up about half the time for any reason, usually due to rain. And most of the kids don’t regularly attend either. I asked the teachers about this, and they said that they are most likely looking for water or doing other tasks for the family (cutting firewood, cleaning, taking care of sick family members, etc).

Since I am in charge of visiting nine schools, I haven’t been able to work with the same group of students for more than a few hours every 1-3 weeks. I’ve learned a lot about the lack of education in the extremely rural areas of the country. I wish I could just build nice schools for these kids and fill them with teachers who show up to teach everyday, but I know this will take time. At least they have a start. I don’t know how much of an impact I am making on the kids or teachers, but I pray that at least a few of them have benefited from my visits. If nothing else, I was able to share my love and compassion with them. And hopefully some of them are now washing their hands and brushing their teeth more often!

My living situation here in the deep south isn’t too shabby. I am now living in two where I eat and one where I sleep. My host mom is a wonderful cook, and I sleep in the house of her crabby, 77-year old mother down the street. The Caribbean Sea is literally a one-minute walk away from the front door, so it’s nice to peak out the window every morning or go for a walk. My fiancé, Tim, now only lives about 30 minutes away from me, so I’m a happy girl. Both houses have generators, so it’s been nice having power most of the time. I think I bring bad luck though. The electricity has been breaking a lot more lately and the generator at the house where I sleep is often discharged. That means really hot, sweaty nights with no fan to cool down. Running water has been a major issue since January, so I’ve been learning how to really conserve water. I even admit that I’ve gone 3 days without showering on numerous occasions. One time it was 4. Gross! Fortunately, there’s a clean river about a 30 min walk away, so I go there to bathe sometimes. The living situation gets to me sometimes, and I’m able to calm myself down by telling myself that it’s not forever. I can’t help but feel guilty for thinking this though, considering that the majority of the world lives in conditions even more difficult. I’m not sure what else I can do to change the world, but I know that God is leading me to do His will.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this entry, I participated in an eye medical mission a few weeks ago. About 80 doctors, surgeons, and logistics volunteers flew to Santiago for a week to see over 800 patients. They performed about 300 surgeries on eyes and some skin issues. Tim and I worked as translators in registration, the screening rooms, pre and post-op surgery rooms, and even the surgeries themselves sometimes. I was born cross-eyed, so it was neat to learn everything about the condition. In fact, I even witnessed the surgery being done on a two-year old to correct his crossed eyes. I had this same surgery when I was two! The work and dedication these volunteers showed that week were amazing. If you would like to visit their website, it’s Pictures from their 2010 trip should be up soon.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Ok, ok, after almost a year of forgetting/not finding the time to blog, I’ve decided to try to keep up again. Sorry I have been so lazy with keeping in touch! I’m not exactly sure where to begin, so I think I’ll just tell you about the top ten things (in my opinion) that have happened throughout the year:

10. Whales. In late February, my two best friends here (Jenn and Emily) and I went whale-watching off the northwest coast of the island in the Samaná Peninsula. We boarded a boat with a lower deck with about 50 tourists or so in hopes to see some humpback whales. They hang around the DR shores from mid January - mid March every year to mate in the warmer waters before heading back toward Maine. We ended up seeing a mom with her young and a couple more lone whales throughout the trip. I was unable to get a good photo because they were jumping low and fast. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any tails, but it was still a really fun trip.

9. Escojo Sub-Regional Conference. My youth group (Escojo Mi Vida…”I Choose My Life”) was in charge of planning the sub-regional conference this year. The theme of the conference was to teach the youth how to use dramas to teach other youth about HIV and pregnancy prevention, self-esteem, etc. Nine youth groups from around the area met up at a nearby pool to learn about these topics and meet new people.

8. Field trips with muchachos. A project I started about a year ago was a youth group for younger girls ages 7-13. We met weekly to learn about better nutrition, read books, work on art projects, learn a little English, etc. In March, we visited an art museum, which the girls absolutely loved. They especially enjoyed the escalator ride, because they had never ridden on one before. When we got back from the trip, I had a bunch of jealous boys on my hands. The girls decided to let the boys join the group, so I often had about 40 children showing up for the weekly meetings. This past October, I was able to bring 20 of them to the zoo in the capital for the first time. I will never forget their reactions to the anaconda, monkeys, and tigers. It was so neat to give these children an opportunity that most kids in America take for granted.

7. America, here I come…and go! In June, my boyfriend (see #1) and I visited the states for a much-needed, relaxing vacation. We spent a few days in Grand Rapids hanging out with family and friends. It was nice to see everyone again at church and to give a presentation slideshow about my experience up to that point. My grandma’s 80th birthday celebration was also one of the main reasons for the trip. She was so surprised to see us! I then spent a week meeting my boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin, driving to the east, and attending his cousin’s wedding in Vermont. The last week and a half was spent in Grand Rapids, catching up with friends and family. Thank you to everyone for such a welcoming trip back home.

6. Stove Project. You may all remember me asking for donations about a year ago to build improved wood-burning stoves in my community. Well, thanks to Thornapple Community Church members, a few wonderful friends, and a very generous doctor who visited my site, the grant was filled to build 28 of these stoves in Sabana del Rey (my community). It was quite the adventure deciding exactly which families would receive the stoves and who would build them. We worked it all out though after my boyfriend gave a training session in May. The families who received the stoves are so grateful. They no longer have to suffer with smoke in their faces while cooking, and the stoves use much less firewood. Now everyone in the community wants one!

5. School Library Project. Since I studied Elementary Education, I was hoping to be able to work with the teachers in the elementary school in my community. I quickly learned that the students only go to school for 2-3 hours a day and only when the teacher feels like showing up. After observing a couple classes, I also realized that the school (like most rural schools in the country) had close to nothing material-wise. The kids are given text books, but most of them had never read a children’s book. In fact, most of them had great difficulty in reading. To attempt to change this, I started working with the librarian in the Peace Corps office to solicit books from local Dominican agencies and from back home. Once again, my home church (TCC) came through and sent a box full of books. The community now has a beautiful library with over 600 books, including a nice reference section, children’s books, adult books, Bibles, and an English section. I also had enough grant money to buy a computer, fans for every classroom, and a teacher chair for every room. The teachers and many women in the community are also trained to run a check-out system, so I am praying that the kids read and that they keep up with library maintenance. Thanks to all who donated books and money to the project!

4. Close-of-Service (COS) Conference. In August, the group of 54 volunteers that I came into the country with (which had dwindled down to 39 I think) had our final good-bye conference. We spent 3 days at a Holiday Inn discussing our adventures and futures. It got me thinking about a career, and it was sad to realize that it was all coming to an end for most of the people in the room. We tried to celebrate by going to an All-Inclusive resort in Punta Cana for a couple of nights. It was so nice to relax on the beach and swim in the pool with nothing to worry about for a few days.

3. Despedida. This is the Spanish word for going-away party. The Catholic priest, school director, and most spirited youth in my site worked together to throw me a surprise going-away party. Many times, volunteers become frustrated with most Dominicans because “gracias” is not always a common word in the Dominican language. There have been many times where I felt that my community didn’t appreciate the work I was doing, because they rarely said thank you. But boy was I wrong. Everyone was just saving up their thank-yous for the end. The women and teachers wrote and sang me a song about the stoves, groups, and library that we worked on. The youth group choreographed a Mexican-type dance complete with costumes in my honor. It was liked so well by the crowd that they performed twice. Songs were sung, speeches were made (even when the power was out and we were using the light from my boyfriend’s head lamp) and people were crying. I knew about the surprise, because the community was not very good at keeping a secret. But I never expected to show up to a crowd of 200 people or so all trying to hug me at once. They even went all out as to give me a plaque, a huge chocolate cake, and a delicious treats for all. It is custom to not serve the cake to all the guests, so my boyfriend and I ended up eating cake at every meal for the days right before I left. Of course, we gave it to neighbor kids and those who helped throw the party afterwards. I have never felt so touched in my life, and I am so sad that I had to leave. The people are and will always be in my heart forever.

2. Extension Opportunity. I decided that I wasn’t ready to leave this country quite yet. I’m really sad about not being home for the holidays again, but who wants to leave the Caribbean during the winter?? Plus, my boyfriend doesn’t end his service until May and I know it would probably be difficult to find a teaching job in the middle of the school year. Therefore, I looked around for an extension project that I could do for 6 months. God is so good that He led me to the perfect extension, and Peace Corps approved it! I changed my site to the deep southern coast, about 7 hours from where I am living. You should see the views around my new community. It is true paradise. I am living with a 77-year old spunky woman in a nice cement block house. Her daughter cooks my lunches and does my laundry. I still have cold bucket baths and sleep under a mosquito net, but the house has a generator. Yay for 24 hour electricity! Work is a little different story though. I am now working with an American priest to visit remote, extremely needy, elementary schools high up in the mountains. We arrive to the schools by scary motor-cycle rides and by foot (sometimes 2-hour long hikes). Most of the students who attend these schools are Haitians and denied an education at public schools. The Catholic Church runs the nine elementary schools, but almost all of them lack materials and teachers. Many of the kids don’t attend school regularly due to all sorts of reasons (looking for water because of dried-up water sources, family need for them to work in the fields, etc.) I was shocked the other day to see the teacher giving three lessons at the same time. He had first/second grade on one side of the room and third/fourth on the other side of the room with a few fifth graders in the back storage room awaiting him. With a line down the middle of the chalkboard, he was teaching three classes at once! Like the rest of the country, the school day only lasts a few hours for the kids. I will be giving lessons to the students about basic hygiene (dental care, washing hands), self-esteem, and HIV discrimination. I hope to work more closely with the students to help a few of them learn to read and hopefully think of some really creative teaching strategies to help the teachers. Please let me know if you have any ideas!

1. I fell in love!!! His name is Tim Brown, and he’s a fellow volunteer. He works as an environmental volunteer….building stoves, working on a hydroelectric project, library project, playing with neighbor kids, etc. I enjoy visiting the waterfall in his site and bathing in the crystal-clear river when I go to visit him at his site way up in the mountains. He went to school at Michigan State, and he’s from Madison, Wisconsin. We pretty much started dating after the Thanksgiving 2008 celebration that Peace Corps throws for its volunteers every year, and he has been a wonderful boyfriend ever since. You may have met him when we visited the states together this past June. In case you haven’t yet though, don’t worry. We’ll be back in May. See you then and I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mulos, Mud, and Marshmallows

I can’t believe the holidays have come and gone so quickly. Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to all!!! I hope everyone was able to celebrate the holidays with friends, family, and all the typical traditions. Being away from home yet again for the holidays has left me a little sad, but I found ways to enjoy the holidays in a less than typical way.

For Thanksgiving, I found myself surrounded by my Peace Corps “family.” Almost all of the volunteers in the country as well as office staff and a few Dominican friends joined together in a country club to celebrate. We enjoyed a full-course turkey dinner with all the fixins including pumpkin pie (my favorite)! It was such a treat to eat the traditional dinner after being used to rice, beans, and fried plantains. We also enjoyed dancing, a swimming pool, and a Dominoes tournament.

My parents and sister came to visit me the second week of December, and we had such a wonderful time. You can only imagine how happy I was to see them walk through the airport doors. After 15 months, I was truly ecstatic. The trip started with trying to figure out how to fill the taxi with all of their luggage and still have room for us. They each brought along two suitcases and a carry-on because they had suitcases full of donations for my community from many generous people. If you are one them reading, thank you so much!!! I’m so lucky to have so many supporters.

The rest of their visit went quite smoothly considering how often things usually don’t go as planned. I forced them up at 4:30am (I know, some vacation, right??) to take public transportation to my campo in order to be there by the 9am church service. My community went all out to welcome them. I noticed that every one was dressed up more than usual and they planned a beautiful service. My host family also served us a delicious Dominican meal. They even used their special tablecloth, and I was shocked to see a forks and knives. I’m still not sure how my dad felt about the campo, but I know my mom would love to return. The kids absolutely adored her. And I think Jackie enjoyed the visit as well even though she was crying before we even set foot into the campo. At the entrance, they just so happened to be slaying a pig when we stepped off the bus.

After the campo experience, we did some touristy stuff around Santo Domingo before embarking on a 5-hour bus ride to Bavaro where we stayed in the Iberostar Punta Cana all-inclusive resort for 5 days. We enjoyed being pampered with delicious buffets, restaurants, dancing, shows, pool, beach, ect. My dad even won the mini-golf tournament and did water aerobics with all the ladies. You can bet the experience was a total shock to me as I hadn’t taken a hot shower for months. I still can’t believe I was in the same country! Thank you so much Mom, Dad, and Jackie for coming. It was a family vacation that I will never forget.

From the 15th to the 23rd, my community woke me up by banging on plastic jugs, cans, etc. with sticks and caroling throughout the community at 5am. I tried to force myself up to join them every morning, but I only made it twice. (I’m not a morning person at all.) The first time, we had a short service in my host family’s home with candles and prayers for God to bless this time of the year. The second time, we caroled through the street to the church for a service by candlelight and guitar music. I also had three Christmas parties for my groups. My house was all decorated with streamers and ornaments, and we all enjoyed playing Secret Santa and decorating Christmas cookies. I´m glad I could show everyone some of our American Christmas traditions.

Christmas Eve found me spending time with my friend and fellow volunteer, Jenn, in Santiago. We rented the cheapest hotel we could find with cable tv and splurged on TGI Fridays as our Christmas meal. We also talked a lot about how much we missed our families. Christmas away from home is really difficult. At least The Christmas Story was on tv to lighten the spirit.

For Christmas, Jenn and I enjoyed McDonald’s breakfast and spent hours waiting in the rain for guaguas (pick-up trucks and small buses) to take us to the base of Pico Duarte. We met up with Teo (Tod) for a macaroni dinner and to prepare for our upcoming hike. The park rangers were nice enough to let us stay in their cabin for the night, but as we walked in, we found a huuuuge rat running in circles on one of the top bunk mattresses. Jenn and I screamed and ran around like schoolgirls while Teo shooed out the rat. You can bet we set up the tent in the middle of the room for the night.

The hike to the top of Pico Duarte was definitely worth it. Teo, Jenn, and I set off with a fellow volunteer’s host dad and brother as our guides, two horses, a mule, camping gear, and positive attitudes. Teo, Jenn, and I were all surprised with the strenuous ascents, and we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. I froze at night even with my sleeping bag, fleece lining, and sweatshirts. Who knew the Caribbean could be soo cold? We made the best of it though and tried to stay warm with hot cocoa and marshmallows, lots of coffee, and tea. I also don’t think I’ve laughed so much in this country. It was great to spend a few days with a couple of fun-loving Americans in the great outdoors. Once we got up the mountain, we took a few pictures and enjoyed the view. Unfortunately, it was mostly cloudy and we weren’t able to see the entire island like we normally would have if it were clear. I think God heard my prayers though, and cleared part of the skies just long enough to see an amazing view. His world truly is beautiful. On the way down, we were supposed to go to a valley with supposedly incredible scenery, but we decided to cut the trip a day short due to the cold, wind, and rain. I tried to hike the whole trip, but a third of the way down, I decided to ride Morena, the mule. My feet were so blistered. Jenn and Teo were a little bitter I think once they started trekking though all the mud. I’ve never seen anything like it. So many people and mules were going down in calf-high mud for miles. Jenn and Teo said it was incredibly hard and kind of fun at the same time, while I feared for my life on Morena. She slid around a lot and I almost fell off at one point. She also took me through some tree branches, which wasn’t very fun. Luckily, we all made it back safely and the memories are unforgettable.

Right after Pico Duarte, Jenn and I decided that we needed to enjoy this country’s beaches for a few days. As a PC New Years tradition, we went to Cabarete on the north coast and met up with about 50 other volunteers to ring in the New Year with fireworks and dancing on the beach.

Now that the holidays are done and over, I’m back to full-force work. My women’s and youth groups will be starting back up soon and I’m busy working on all sorts of secondary projects. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep my spirits up especially when things don’t go as planned, but now that I’ve climbed to the top of the Caribbean, I feel like I can take on anything.

Hope you are all doing well and thanks for reading!

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Surreal and Unforgettable Year

Saludos! Once again, I’m being bad about remembering to update my blog more often. I apologize. I can’t believe fall is here again and that it’s been over a year since I arrived in the DR. Wow, time flies by! So much has happened in the last year. Here are a few things to sum the year up...

~ Prayed for lots of guidance from our good Lord above
~ Watched my 70-year-old Doña kill a gigantic rat with a high heel and then do a victory dance around the house
~ Graduated 11 outstanding youth in a HIV prevention youth group to start promoting in the community and high school (One of them even received Multiplicador of the Year at the National Conference. Yay! I’m so proud!)
~ Graduated 11 incredible women from a nutrition course. We are now working on reproductive health and planning campaigns.
~ Graduated 15 bright youth from an English course
~ Drew a map of the community, interviewed 120 women in their homes, and took a population census (793 people live here in 215 houses...FYI)
~ Became part of a huge, incredibly kind family
~ Drank 1,463 cafecitos while sitting in plastic chairs
~ Ate pig intestines, chicken feet, and countless ants
~ Thought seriously about legally changing my name to Rubia, Kimba, or Americana
~ Weighed lots of babies and children under 5
~ Learned to dance Merengue and Bachata
~ Wrote grants to support the youth groups, start a school library, and build cleaner stoves
~ Worked with a mining company and elementary students to start a school garden
~ Worked on getting birth certificates for some of the kids
~ Sweated more than I thought humanly possible from May-Oct
~ Raffled off an umbrella
~ Lost count of marriage proposals after 184
~ Survived Dengue Fever
~ Took Anti-Malaria pills
~ Rejoiced every time the electricity came back on
~ Fed milk to baby piglets
~ Read the New Testament and Psalms in both English and Spanish
~ Stared a lot up at the stars
~ Became a “photographer,” “doctora,” and a “tia” (aunt)
~ Ended my phobia of spiders
~ Received countless oranges, pineapples, avocados, coconuts, mangos, etc.
~ Made squash bread with green leaves (actually delicious) and baked a cake
~ Rode on motorcycles, back of pick-ups, jam-packed buses, and in the back of chicken trucks
~ Made Super Eggs, Super Salad, and Super Soup with the women’s group (I’m super creative with my super recipe names)
~ Started to actually crave rice and beans for lunch
~ Wore flip flops everywhere, even to meetings
~ Fell a few times in the mud
~ Slept under a pink mosquito net
~ Helped in a cock fight fundraiser
~ Learned some Spanish
~ Read about 50 novels
~ Visited a few white, sandy beaches with turquoise waters and palm trees
~ Bought a hammock that I have yet to put up
~ Took over 300 ice cold, bucket baths
~ Started working on the nearly impossible task of finding $200,000 to build a much needed bridge (People get trapped inside the community during big storms; sometimes for days...Have any suggestions??)
~ Swept water out of my house during Tropical Storm Noel and bathed in the rain during Ike
~ Let my host sister put my hair in “tubies” and rollers and paint my nails with fancy designs
~ Hitchhiked for 2 hours to the capital with a friend
~ Started a war with the ants and cockroaches and mosquitoes
~ Lost 15 pounds
~ Learned the words to my favorite Bachata song: “Es Tan Dificil”
~ Used my pee pot on a nightly basis
~ Attempted and failed to teach a 14 year-old how to swim
~ Cried only once (Christmas Eve)
~ Played countless games of Uno and Old Maid
~ Sort of figured out the strategy to Dominoes
~ Held morning dance parties in my room with my 2 year-old host sister...the girl has got some serious moves
~ Thanked God every day for giving me this amazing opportunity

So that’s some of the stuff I’ve been involved with this past year. It sure has been an adventure. At the moment, I’m really working on trying to get a lot of bigger projects started. I think my parents are trying to help me collect and send donations of Spanish books, sports equipment, etc. If you would like to donate, please talk to them. Also, I’m working with the community to get them special wood-burning stoves that direct the smoke through a chimney-like tube. These stoves are much cleaner and safer for their health and the environment, as they use less firewood as well.

If you would like to contribute to the stove project, please visit the Peace Corps website at Click on the Donate Now tab on the left-hand side. Then click on Donate to Volunteer Projects and type in my last name... Dykwell, in the keyword search box. My project is called Improved Clay Stoves. The families of my small community and I really appreciate anything you can contribute, even if it’s just a few dollars. It all adds up. Inhalation of smoke during cooking has been a major cause of Acute Respiratory Infections for a long time in the community, and this project is a way to help reduce the problem. It also teaches some members of the community new skills, as they will be the ones building the stoves. Your money will go towards buying the materials and bringing in a trainer to train the community. The community’s job will be the physical labor, cooking lunch for the workers, and transporting the materials. Without your support, the community won’t be able to do this project. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You’re the best! Y un gran abrazo a todos! (And a big hug to all!)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oops, I haven’t updated this in awhile, huh? So how’s everyone doing? Life here is pretty good, although I am really melting in this heat. I hope you all had a happy Independence Day. I ended up going to a secluded beach on the southwest coast to celebrate with about 70 other volunteers. We had to take an 8 hour crammed bus ride from the capital (I literally shared a fold-down middle seat with another volunteer for 3 hours), an hour long ride in the back of a truck, and a 20 minute boat ride to get there. It was worth it though. The turquoise waters, white sand, palm trees, and steep cliffs were breath taking. It was hands down the most beautiful part of the country that I’ve seen so far. Sorry I can’t post any pics. My digital camera unfortunately broke right before the trip. As far as my work, I’m still doing the same projects, and I’m planning to “graduate” all of the groups within the next month or so. They are all going great right now. I also had more language training last month, and my teacher said that I’m advancing a lot. I’m not sure how much I believe her, but that’s encouraging. Below, you will find answers to an email that a future business volunteer asked me to answer. I thought some of you might find it interesting, so I figured I’d post it here. Anyways, please send me a quick email when you get a chance. I know I’ve been slow with responding lately, but I promise I will eventually write back. Miss you all!

1. Did you bring a laptop? If so, what do you recommend bringing with it (extra battery, etc)?
Yes, I brought my laptop with me and I would highly recommend it. It comes in useful to write grants and other work related material. It’s also nice for watching DVDs or having music on it. Most likely, being a CED volunteer, you will probably be put in a site that has electricity (sporadically like the entire DR) so you’ll be able charge the battery. The PC office also has wireless internet, so it’s nice to have a laptop so you don’t have to try to beat the other volunteers to the 6 available computers. An extra battery might be a nice thing to have as a backup. Make sure you bring a memory stick so you can print your work from other computers.

2. How much access to the internet did you have (how many times per month/week)?
I have access to the internet whenever I choose to go into the nearest town, which is about 45 minutes away. I try to stay in my site as much as possible, but I make it to the internet cafe about once a week. You might be put in a more developed area that actually has internet access right there, so you might have access that’s really easy to get to.

3. How often were you able to contact home (via phone, e-mail)?
I contact my family about once a week through my cell phone. The PC issues cell phones to volunteers. We have to buy expensive phone cards though to call outside the PC network. I’ve found the best thing to do is have my family buy cheaper phone cards in the states to call me back, so I only have to use 1 minute to reach them. Text messaging works well too. As for my friends, I keep in contact with them mostly through email.

4.What kind of food was available? Besides rice and beans, did you have access to a variety of fruits and vegetables and other foods?
Depending on where you are posted, a lot of different kinds of food are available. I do still eat rice and beans everyday at my host family’s house for lunch, but I make my own breakfasts and dinners. I live in a really rural agricultural community, so the only access to food here are the colmados (tiny stores blaring Merengue and Bachata music) and people are always giving me oranges, pineapples, mangos, bananas, plantains, etc. depending on the growing season. The colmados sell mostly staple items like bread, cheese, spaghetti, eggs, milk, sugar, oil, and salami. In the nearest town, there’s a large supermarket with everything from macaroni and cheese to fresh vegetables to peanut butter to sliced bread (all the nice comforts of home). The capital has pretty much everything you can think of. As for restaurants in the capital, there’s McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, TGIFridays, Baskin Robbins, etc.

5. What kind of exercise was feasible for you to do (jogging, etc.)? In your opinion, is jogging safe to do?
I try to jog or walk long distances in my campo a few times a week. It’s completely safe, and the people think it’s hilarious (especially when I go for a run). Everybody yells my name and comments about me doing exercise. The only thing I have to worry about is when some of the street dogs chase after me barking. One time, I even had a wild turkey trying to attack me. A few youth even like to walk with me, which is a great way to hang out with them and promote exercise. This is a culture that doesn’t do much physical activity. Also, I was able to score a yoga mat from a former volunteer and I’ll do Pilates by candlelight at night when there’s no electricity (especially during times like right now, when it is just too darn hot to go running). It’s a great stress reliever too.

6. How many times did you get sick and with what?
Fortunately, I haven’t been too sick yet. During training, I got Dengue Fever and a bad case of diarrhea. Luckily, the Dengue wasn’t a really serious case. I didn’t even go to the hospital, even though all the other volunteers were advising me to. The symptoms cleared up after about a week. Actually, I didn’t know it was Dengue until I got the infamous rash at the end. As for the diarrhea, it cleared up with antibiotics from the med office. For the past 9 months, I’ve been relatively healthy. I only had a problem with my foot once, where I limped around for a few days. It turns out I was wearing a pair of flip flops that were so worn down, they actually did damage. I’ve learned to change my flip flops every few months now. Other volunteers tend to get infections, Dengue, gastrointestinal problems, colds, etc. The med care is really good here though.

7. What were your living conditions like during training and on your site?
During training, I stayed in the capital for about a month in a middle, lower class neighborhood. My Dona was about 70 years old, and had a pretty nice house with a generator. I slept at her daughter’s house though that didn’t have running water and sporadic electricity. My second night in country was my first bucket bath. They take a little getting used to, but they aren’t so bad. Other volunteers stayed in houses with generators, running water, and some even had Internet, so it just depends on your luck. After the capital, I went to the south for another month and a half for tech training. I had my own little casita separate from host family that had a nice bathroom with tiled floors and a running toilet. The shower didn’t work though, so the bucket baths continued. And I had sporadic electricity. Some other volunteers had generators in their houses and others had to use outhouses. As for now, I’m still living with my host family. Most volunteers leave and find their own houses, but I really like my host family. I’ve found that my Spanish is getting much better by living with them and I feel really safe with them so close by. Once again, I was lucky to get a separate casita, so I have my privacy when I want it. The only hard thing is that they are really loud, especially in the morning. I can’t remember the last time I slept in past 7am. I use the bathroom in my host family’s house. It has a running toilet and a water spout for taking bucket baths. The water doesn’t work about 20% of the time though, so we go the nearest well to fetch water. This is how most of the people in my community get water, as most houses don’t have running water. At night, I use a pee pot to go to the bathroom, as my host family’s house is all locked up. As for electricity, it randomly comes and goes. The best feeling in the world is when my fan turns on in the middle of the night to relieve the heat (and the worst feeling is when it goes and the sweat returns). Every now and then, we won’t have electricity for a few days if there’s a bad storm or the electricity lines get damaged. A lot of other volunteers have their own houses and have outhouses built for them. A few volunteers even rent houses with generators, so they have electricity 24/7. Some volunteers bathe in nearby rivers and others have showers. The living conditions really just depend on the situation. As for cell phone signal, many volunteers have signal right in their sites and others, like me, have to go to the nearest village to find signal.

8. What particular items do you recommend packing?
For the cool winter nights, I suggest having a blanket and a sweatshirt. I was freezing all of December until my Grandma sent me one. Also, a wind-up rechargeable flashlight is useful. Other volunteers suggest rechargeable AA batteries. A head lamp is good to have, especially if you are going to use an outhouse at night. I would also suggest lots of flip flops. I brought a bunch of shoes that I never wear. Also, don’t forget a digital camera if you like to take pictures. I’ve become the town photographer for birthdays and baptisms. I’m also really glad I brought my ipod and speakers. As for toiletries, I brought enough to last me a year, which was great for not having to buy anything for awhile. The capital and most small towns have a large supply of toiletries though. I would suggest a toothbrush cover though. And don’t worry about bringing bug spray and sunscreen. We have access to an endless supply.

9. What type of clothing do you recommend?
I wouldn’t recommend bringing as many formal clothes as the PC packing list suggests. The only time I wear business clothes is during conferences. Although, as a business volunteer, you might need more nicer clothes than me. Make sure you bring a couple of bathing suits. Most volunteers make it to the beach at least once every few months. Also, it gets really hot here from May-September. Unfortunately, I only brought 2 skirts with me, and I seem to be wearing them every day. I also suggest a lot of tank tops and lightweight dresses. During the winter, the nights are cool depending on where you are posted. In December through February, I slept a lot of nights in my sweatshirt and jeans. I don’t suggest bringing a lot of shorts, as the locals tend to wear them only for sleeping.

10. How reliable was the mail system?
The mail system here isn’t really reliable, but I haven’t had too many problems. You will be issued a mailbox in the PC office and friends and family can send you letters or packages. As far as I know, I’ve received all the packages sent to me within a month of being sent. As for letters and cards, I know of about 5 or so that never made it here. Other volunteers complain about packages that they never received or it took months to get here. As for sending letters, I’ve never attempted it, although a lot of volunteers write hand-written letters. I just find it so much easier to use email, and I know the letters won’t be lost.

11. How reliable was the banking system?
The banking system is great. It’s just like in the states. The PC gives us ATM cards for a bank which can be found pretty much all over the country. We get paid monthly, enough to get by. Most ATMs also take Visa and Mastercard, so if you need to get money from your American account, it’s really easy.

12. Did you bring a credit card?
Yes, I did bring a credit card, but the PC office is holding it, along with my personal passport and driver’s license. I do have my ATM card from the states with me though, which comes in handy sometimes, especially if you make a trip to the beach or need more things than usual one month.

13. Did you ever have an incident when you felt your safety was compromised?
No, I’ve never felt unsafe here. You just have to be smart with your belongings and keep them in site at all times, especially on the buses. I always keep my house locked up when I’m away, but I trust everyone in my community. Volunteers posted in the larger cities have a higher chance of being robbed, although it sometimes does happen in the rural communities. As for physical safety, I’ve never felt threatened. The men here constantly hiss and yell comments (mostly “rubia”, “Americana”, “I love you baby”, etc.), but it’s not their culture to touch. Most Dominicans are really helpful too, and love to help in any way. Sometimes I wake up and hear strange noises around my house. It’s probably just animals, but sometimes I get paranoid. I actually know a couple of volunteers who sleep with machetes under their pillows, but I haven’t felt the need to do this. Most of the time, I’ll just try to fall asleep with my Ipod to drown out the sounds.

14. I am a Christian and am wondering if there were any local churches where you were? Did you attend any?
In my campo, there are 2 churches. There is a Catholic church and an Evangelical church. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve found that it is much more similar to the structure and beliefs of my home church. The Evangelical church is much more radical with a much smaller congregation. During the Evangelical service, the people act like they’re in a trance and are screaming about God. The sermon is also broadcasted through powerful speakers and can be heard throughout my campo. The Catholic church is really active in my community, and it helped me to integrate into the community to attend services. So if you have a church where you are posted, I suggest you go, especially to get know everyone and to praise the Lord of course. I also suggest bringing a devotional Bible with you. I’ve been reading a couple of chapters every day to keep my faith strong and it really helps with the loneliness to read a Psalm everyday. With more free time here, I’ve found that I finally have the time to read the whole Bible like I’ve always wanted to do.

15. How often did you come home to the US?
I actually haven’t been back to the US yet. Basically, I just don’t want to pay for the expensive ticket, but pretty much, you can travel back after 3 months at your site. We have 2 days a month for vacation time that accrues. I’m planning on going back sometime next year for 3 weeks (maximum time to be on vacation) when I have a lot of vacation time saved up. I know volunteers who have gone back to the states multiple times for short periods of time for weddings, holidays, etc.

16. How often did you have friends/family come visit?
Friends and family can visit anytime after you are at your site for 3 months. I’ve had one friend visit so far, with many others saying they would like to. My parents and sister are coming in December to visit my campo and head to the beach for a few days. You are supposed to take vacation time if you’re traveling for long periods with your friends in the country. If they stay with you at your site though, it’s not a problem.

17. What kind of post Peace Corps opportunities were available to you?Since I’m still in the middle of my service, I haven’t really thought too much about it yet. The PC offers reduced tuition at multiple universities for grad school. We also have a close of service conference that helps us to integrate back to the states, write resumes, recommendation letters, and discusses other opportunities.