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.

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