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 SamanĂ¡ 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!