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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

You Know You're in the Peace Corps When...

This past week has definitely been a “Peace Corps” week. One of the highlights includes finding a snake chilling out on my kitchen table. I thought I was going to have a heart attack as I watched my host uncle kill it with a machete. He then thought it would be funny to throw the dead snake at me. Luckily, he missed. Not funny, Tio! Then, a couple of days later, the thunderstorms began. My host mom and I rushed to move everything up high as water started leaking under the doors. The winds were soo strong that it was blowing through the house and raining through the cracks between the roof and block. Although it only lasted about 20 minutes, it took down trees and power lines. We have been without electricity and running water ever since. That night, another storm blew in. This time, water dripped through the tin roof and onto my bed while I was trying to sleep. Let’s just say I didn’t get much sleep that night! Now I use a plastic cover on top of my mosquito net to prevent future rain from leaking in. And finally, as I was using the bathroom last night in the dark, a cockroach crawled up my pant leg! I’m still grossed out thinking about it. Yuck! These are just some of the adventures of Peace Corps.

So a lot has happened since the last time I wrote. Let me update you. My work has been going pretty good. I have been a little frustrated with my women’s nutrition course. Only four women showed up to the first meeting, but I managed to get thirteen to come to the next one. It is so difficult to motivate my community to be assertive, but little by little, they are coming around. My youth group is going great! Twenty-eight youth showed up to the first meeting and I was impressed with the amount of participation. I also started teaching a couple of English classes. Pretty much the whole community wants to learn English, so I’ll probably be teaching classes throughout my service. Right now, the students are really enjoying the class and I hear them singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” walking down the street.

I had my first visitor a couple of weeks ago! A cousin of my sister’s best friend wanted to come down to the DR to check out Peace Corps Dominican Republic. He was a TEFL Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon from 2002-04. We had a great time while he was here. We checked out the sites of Santo Domingo, spent a few days in my campo, and headed to the beach for a couple of days. In my campo, he helped me out with my youth group, baby weighing, and even taught my English class. He was amazed at how much American influence is in this country, especially in the capital. As I don’t know my way around the capital very well and it was late when he arrived, I made him eat at Pizza Hut the first night. He was then shocked to find out that I could buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and sliced bread at the supermarket in the nearest village. When he asked me how I washed my clothes, I told him that we have these things called “machines.” I think he was speechless for a minute. Life in Cameroon was a little different. But although there is a lot of American influence here, I don’t find too much in my campo. It’s nice to be away from the US for a couple of years to experience a completely different culture and way of living, but I admit that I do enjoy going to the capital every now and then to eat McDonalds or TGIFridays. It helps with the homesickness.

So has spring finally arrived back at home? I hope everyone made it through the rough winter all right. Just think, pretty soon you’ll be having the same weather that I have been experiencing for the past seven months. I still can’t get used to this endless summer thing! What month is it??

Thursday, March 6, 2008


This is my favorite saying here. It means, “Give me a little bit!” My host family is always saying this, as we share everything when it comes to food....unless it is my food. I just recently started making my breakfasts and dinners, and let me tell you, my wheat bread, canned ravioli, yogurt, and peanut butter are just weird to them. I can’t wait to start trying to get the women to use vegetables in their rice. It should be a fun challenge.

So everything is going pretty good right now. I’m all settled into my little casita. I just bought a new bed, counter-top stove, small table for my books, and a fan with my settling-in allowance. Some neighbors were nice enough to fill my stove tank with gas, and hook everything up. I didn’t even have to ask. They just came over and started working on it. I’m amazed every day by the Dominican’s generosity and kindness.

My In-Service Training went well. I learned more about forming/working with my youth groups, nutrition, and gardening. In the future, I would like to work with the community to start a school garden, so the kids can learn some responsibility and sell the veggies. As I’ve never gardened before, I don’t know how much of a green thumb I will have, but hopefully there are enough people in my community to help get it started.

After training, a bunch of volunteers and I went to La Vega to celebrate Carnival. We had a lot of fun roaming through the crowds and watching the parade of people dressed up in elaborate costumes. We also had to keep watch over our booties. People were hitting us with these rubber ball type things. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, when they apparently used to use pig bladders. Nevertheless, I still ended up getting MASSIVE bruises that lasted two weeks.

For my birthday, I went to the nearest city to where I live to celebrate with five other volunteers. It was also Independence Day here and the last day of the Carnival celebration. Normally my birthday is pretty dull, but I’ve never seen so many people having a good time. There was another parade, and luckily the spanking was much tamer. My favorite costume was a guy dressed as a latrine. After the parade, we went to the discotheque for some Bachata and Merengue dancing. My host sister and a few relatives showed up to celebrate as well. It was a fantastic birthday.

Well, I have my first youth conference to attend this week before starting the nutrition course and youth groups. I’m taking my host sister and a really interested neighbor to the conference. We discuss topics such as HIV prevention and how to be peer leaders. The youth are also really excited for the pool.

That’s about it for now. I’m going to stop in at the clinic on the way home to see about getting baby weighing materials, and hopefully I can catch a bola (free ride) back to my house. Last week, I hitched a ride into the city on the back of a big chicken truck with four Dominicans and me standing in a row with the wind blowing through our hair. Haha, I love my life...

Well, I hope everyone is enjoying life and I pray that it is finally starting to warm up back at home. It sounds like Michigan has had quite the winter this year. To tell you the truth, I kind of miss snow...never thought I would say that!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Answered Prayers

I’ve been getting numerous emails lately from friends, family, and Thornapple Community Church members telling me that I am in their thoughts and prayers. I want to thank everyone, because I think the prayers are being answered. I’m really starting to enjoy my job and my community. The people here are AMAZING. They have so much love for each other and life even though they have very little. It goes to show that money can’t buy happiness and we really don’t need material things. All you really need in life is a good sense of humor, some loud Bachata music, a good dance partner, and a lot of faith! :)
Christmas passed with not much of a celebration. I woke up depressed on Christmas Eve, because I missed home and the holiday traditions. We did have a big dinner, but we still didn’t sit down to eat together. Then I went to church service, but I missed the candlelight services in the states. Afterwards, we danced in the local colmado until midnight to celebrate. On Christmas, we didn’t do much of anything—just more dancing at night. New Years was much better. Many of the volunteers and I decided to spend a few days in Cabarete, a beach town on the north coast. It was so nice to be able to relax in luxury for a few days and the hot showers were incredible!
In a few weeks, I’m allowed to find my own place to live. But I think I’m just going to stay with my host family. I have really grown accustomed to my living situation and feel like a member of the family. Also, I have my own little casita (separate part of the house next to the kitchen), so it’s nice to have a little privacy every now and then. My best friend here is also my host sister, Leyda. She’s 24 and we talk and laugh about everything. We actually share the same birthday, which is Independence Day here (Feb 27). Very exciting! She has an adorable 16 month old daughter named Zyleca, who loves to dance already. Anallelis, 6, is my other host sister who loves to play Uno and follow me around everywhere. My Don Blanco and Doña Tonia are wonderful, too. They always make sure I’m well fed and comfortable. Blanco keeps telling me to find a compañero to keep me warm at night, to which I reply that all I need is my teddy bear. Everyone thinks I’m kidding when I tell them that it’s colder than a refrigerator in Michigan right now, and I now actually agree with them that 65 degrees is really cold. Thanks Grandma and Grandpa for sending me a blanket!
As for my work, I just finished interviewing 120 women in the community door to door. Now I’m busy analyzing all the info and writing up a report. I have to give a presentation at 3 Month In-Service Training, which lasts for a week in mid-February. The report and presentation are in Spanish, so please wish me lots of luck. I’ve found many needs in my community, especially when it comes to child nutrition and women’s health. I’m also excited to start my Escojo youth group, where we discuss things like values, self-esteem, HIV/AIDS prevention, and safe sex practices.

Oh…and I finally found an Internet place that has computers with USB ports, so I posted a few pics on the flickr link. Feel free to check them out when you get a chance. I hope everyone had a happy new year, and as all the Dominicans say, “Vaya con Dios!” (Go with God!)