Friday, December 4, 2009

The unassuming attraction

Yesterday I was enjoying a little post-shopping respite--working on some logic puzzles I got from another Volunteer--in the cafeteria of La Sirena, the closest thing this country has to Wal-Mart. I have a four-person table to myself, until an elderly man sits a raggedy looking 7-something boy down next to me, puts a big plate of pasta and vegetables in front of him, then takes off. Though I was happy to have company, a "Is it ok if the boy sits with you?" would have been nice. Now, questions: who is my new lunchmate? Could he be a shoeshine boy, eating what's likely the most delicious meal of his life on a kindly old man's tab? Placed next to the white guy, inspiring the jaded American to work tirelessly in the service of shoeshine boys? Or more likely, but far less romantically, he's this old man's son or nephew or something, and this white guy doesn't look as much like a child abductor/molester as the other guys sitting alone at other tables. Either way, I try to engage in a little small talk, you know, about his food--"¿Está buena la comida?" and "Pero, ¿ya has terminado? Imposible"--and the weather--"Que sí hace frío aquí en La Sirena, con este aire acondicionado, ¿no?"; curious stares are his only response. Meanwhile, three fine-looking 40-somethings seem to think it's cute, the little boy with his big ol' pasta, the big ol' gringo with his little yogurt--the kind that comes with a small thing of Oreo bits attached to the top, that you mix in. They look over at me and smile; I reciprocate, and I might have treated it as a come-on, except that I was busy with my puzzle and yogurt and they probably had 10+ kids, three husbands and five boyfriends between them. Then a girl sat down with us, maybe his shoeshine sister, or just his regular sister--more attempts at small talk, more stares. Then a minute or two later they left briskly, silently and unceremoniously, to go sit with what appeared to be their family.

I'm still working on my puzzle, when a middle-aged woman, maybe the same age as the man who sat the kid down, asks me if I'm from around here. Like all Volunteers, I have a prefabricated answer ready for instant deployment: "no, I'm from the United States, but I live in Las Maras and teach English and computers there and in Villa Palmarito. My organization is called the Peace Corps...", etc. But I vacillate a little and she cuts me down with question #2: "My daughter is wondering where a good pica pollo (fried chicken place) is around here. Do you know of one?" The following is what I want to ask at this moment: "Is your daughter hot? Where does she live, if not around here? If I buy her pica pollo, will she give me digits? Why are you asking me, almost certainly the only non-Dominican in the cafeteria, about pica pollo? And why you and not your presumably hot daughter?" Instead, I duly point her towards my favorite pica pollo, the one three or so blocks towards Autopista Duarte on Gregorio Rivas, the one that you've missed if you've made it to the Banco Popular. It's called Don Julio. She said thank you and left. I never saw her gorgeous daughter.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Income and Expenditure

Since a little bit after I arrived here in La Vega, I've been faithfully documenting what I'm making and what I'm spending.

I'm posting the September account along with a summary by category. When warranted, I've posted comments on the Description cells.

I'd say the most remarkable thing is that unlike a lot of PCVs, I'm saving money, almost $50 last month. If I save $50 a month for the rest of my service, I'll leave the country $900 richer. In addition, all PCVs receive a readjustment allowance at the end of service equal to the number of months they've served times $225. That comes out to $6,075 for 27 months of service (the two-year commitment plus three months of training).

Check it out

Thursday, September 3, 2009


This poor, poor blog. Sometimes I hear it calling out to me at night, begging for a little attention, a few witty remarks, a good yarn involving bodily functions. And I tell it, “Sorry baby, times have changed, I’m kind of busy now. But don’t worry, I’ll hit you up soon.”

And things are different, ain’t that the truth. For starters, I now live alone, for the first time, in my own apartment, in a foreign country; been living here about 1.5 months. The place has two bedrooms, each bigger than my freshman dorm room, plus a cramped, smelly bathroom with leaking pipes and an adequate kitchen space. I pay 2,500 pesos a month, about $70, with running water and electricity—the 10 or so hours of it we get a day—included.

In other words, it’s paradise. Things had long gone sour with the host family. Turns out, “commendably curious” Oliver was especially curious about my belongings, using them without asking and abusing them and then lying to me about it. I, and his mother, told him not to touch my stuff, but he continued to.

I see two aspects of Dominican culture at work here. One, that the average Dominican sees your property as theirs too, unless you’ve firmly demarcated it. For example, you leave your bar of soap in the shower. Well, you left it there, so it’s para el pueblo—you’re okay with letting others use it. Since I shared a closet with Oliver, he felt free to use what was mine. And sometimes I’d let him, say, spray a little bit of my cologne if he was heading out. Which set a bad precedent, because then he thought he could get fragrant whenever he wanted to, which wasn’t the intention. So I hid the stuff in my shoes, you know, because they could use a little cologne.

Second aspect: Dominican childrearing is very authoritarian. Doña Mercedes is always telling Oliver to not do this, not do that, asking him why he did this or that; she fears giving him any independence. The result, that kid is largely desensitized to authority, complying only when he sees some incentive to, which is rare. He saw no incentive for leaving my stuff alone, so he didn’t.

Beyond the material insecurity I felt, I just knew that it was time to live alone. I was craving my independence, asserting it whenever I could, which was creating friction. One of the advantages of living in a more urban area, I was able to find a place with relative ease.

Second big change: I’m now the proud owner of a bicycle (mine's the boring blue one, not the super-sweet green one). I bought it from a friend, I don’t know his name—I wonder if even he knows his name. Everyone just calls him el mudo—the mute, because he’s deaf so he can’t talk. Why they don't call him el sordo, I'm not sure. Anyways, he mostly just yelps and gestures wildly. We seem to understand each other most of the time; our conversations don’t go much beyond the weather, but I could say the same for my convos with hearing Dominicans too. He’s very proud to have me riding his old bike, and whenever he sees me riding on la calle principal he points—and yelps. “Miren, el americano e’tá andando en mi bici,” I imagine him saying.

The bike is a blessing. I love bouncing around the barrio, around the city, weaving through cars and motorcycles, having pedestrians yield to me. In the walking days, motoconchistas—taxi drivers, only instead of cars they’re on motorcycles—would salivate when they saw me on foot, hissing incessantly, desperate to take me and my wallet for a ride. Now I just ride past.

Saturday I took off down the freeway to Jima Arriba, maybe a 15-mile trip, to see my girl Cameron. Huffing and puffing in the shoulder, watching traffic blow by at 60-100 MPH, made me feel something like vulnerable. On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable on public transport here. Chances are, your driver’s either drunk, the vehicle has some crucial mechanical fault that will someday cause a gruesome accident, or there’s something inhuman crawling about your feet, but you’re pegged between two fat women and are therefore unable to make the necessary physical maneuvers to do anything about it. Give me a bike any day.

So there you go blog, no poop but plenty of juicy details about life here on this goofy island.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Things that go bump, thump and poop in the night

I didn’t sleep very well on my recent trip to the capital. Two nights there, on business and modest pleasure, I struggled through restless nights at both La Pensión, the designated Peace Corps plop spot, and my old host family’s house. Returning to my site Friday, I enjoyed what I’ve come to consider decent sleep on my dilapidated mattress. Up at 830 Saturday, I’d spend about nine hours cloistered in my project site, immersed in its computers.

So Saturday night I get home, and I’m ready for bed. At around 1100, as I settle in under my mosquito net, laptop poised for some last-minute computer action, I catch a faint smell of urine. Looking around, I notice something brown and circular, about the thickness and diameter of a nickel. I flick it off my bed, onto the floor. Smell my fingertips. Yep, that’s definitely animal excrement. Of what animal, I don’t know. A bird maybe? I’ve seen one or two flying through the house. My scatology skills being unfit for the task of identification, I duly wipe it up, telling host mom that I found caca de pájaro on my bed. You know, just an FYI.

Maybe 15 minutes later, I’m killing mosquitos that have infiltrated my mosquito net. Not uncommon, since they have infested this house and this barrio—hence the Dengue. It´s unhelpful that I also don’t fully tuck my mosquito net in. Host mom sees me clapping and smashing, and starts tucking in the mosquito net on the side opposite the wall, where it hangs loosely on the floor. Sleep-deprived and upset at a living situation that only deteriorates, I brusquely tell her off, that it’s okay, whatever, the hunt is more for sport than self-protection, that the mosquitos that don’t fall victim to my palms of fury cower in fear instead of biting me.

Lights out, and sleep remains illusory. Cooling breezes had coursed through Las Maras all day long; tonight they’ve died, leaving a suffocating heat in their wake. Now my mind agitates with thoughts of the animal kingdom: who could have left that bit of fecal detritus? Is it still hanging around?

After a few hours of tense sleep, I feel something big and damp on my knee. I scream, barrel-roll off my bed and scramble out from under the net. What the hell was that? The electricity is out, my camera battery is discharged, the flashlight on my to-buy list remains there, so I reach back in to my violated sanctuary and snatch my cell phone, my only light source. A cursory—inadequate—examination of the area reveals nothing suspect: no sloths, no worms, no wet birds. I keep a plastic bag for earplugs on my bed; was I rub up against it, and did that cause me to shriek like Freddy or Jason’s next victim?

Casting fear aside—nothing should get in the way of sleep—I cautiously climb back into bed, cursing the bastards that make the lights go out at night. Ear on my cotton-ball-stuffed pillow, I try to think of rainbows, unicorns, pizza…then I hear a light boom, like something falling on the mattress. I don’t move. Ten seconds later, again. The third time, it lands square on my leg. I scurry out of bed—silently.

I go to flip the light switch and voilà, light. And there I see it, near the top of the net: a…something. Before I can identify the creature, it promptly falls again onto the mattress. I yank the net out from underneath the mattress to facilitate its departure. Grabbing my camera, I take the series of pictures below.

The origin of the excrement remains unknown, though later on I did find more evidence of it on my nylon refuge. Unknown too is how Kermit managed to undermine the only really fortified side. On second thought, maybe he came through the open end and crossed over me to the wall, in which case I should’ve heeded host mom and tucked it in.

In the days since, I’ve come to notice more evidence of animality in this house: the five wasp nests hanging from the roof (you can see the biggest of them in that last photo); the line of bustling ants crawling up and down the wall next to the front door; the spider web that spans the length of the kitchen, no more than a few inches above my head. Though the American tightwad in me wants to eradicate these flagrant violations of my domestic sovereignty, PCV-me can only consider them part of the adventure. Ditto for the frog business. Here in the DR, you don’t have to embrace nature’s intrusions, but you won’t get far fighting them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Buzzed and defuzzed

In my first days in La Vega, I met Rafelito. The son of one of my project partners, he had grand aspirations for “Dominicanizing” my style, with the express purpose of facilitating my obtainment of premium Dominicana, naturally. For the record, Rafelito is 30, single, unemployed, living with his mom, with a 7 year-old son; during our time together, he bought a lottery ticket, saying he had to win big so he could pay off a $100 loan which he had backed with his motorcycle. He had taken out the loan to pay for his kid’s health care. I hoped he would Dominicanize me only in style.

Maybe a month later, Rafe pulled up one afternoon in the motorcycle, told me it was haircut/party time. Any good PCV knows you don’t turn down such an invitation, so out we went. First stop: the hair man. As you can see, the barber shop has the most of the fixtures of one in the States—disinfectant not being one of them. Note that Jonathan the barber is a kid around my age, hence the Scarface poster and babe calendar.

A little back story: During our 2.5 months of training, Dominicans would ask me, “So it’s been a while since you got your hair cut, ¿no?” : “You don’t get your hair cut very often, ¿do you?” : “¿Why don’t you get your hair cut?” And every time I would think, “It’s been only a month or two since I shaved my head. What’s the big deal?” When I found out that my host brother here in La Vega, in this family of very modest means, gets a trim every week or two, I realized that my “long” hair indicated a lack of personal upkeep. Coupled with an untrimmed beard, which was indeed just that even by my own admission, I probably came off as something of a slob. Ouch.

So this was my chance to shape up. It took maybe 10 minutes to establish what kind of cut I’d get. They kept asking whether I wanted it towards the back or the front; I didn’t know what that meant, so I just kept saying that it’s hot as balls in this country and that I wanted it short, a request which, by itself, wasn’t, um, cutting it. In the end we settled on something. I’m not sure what that was, but I guess the result pleased me. It’s a little more Jean-Claude Van Damme then I’m used to, but nothing: the kid worked long (half hour maybe) and diligently on it, with a keen attention to detail. Same with the shave—all facial hair dispatched with, and not a scratch. I’d never had another shave my face, but I might make a habit out of it now. Total cost: about $3.70.

Nothing much happened after that: a beer with his cousin which I paid for, back to mom’s house for video games, then a perilous trip home on the country’s main highway, perilous to begin with. Evidently the motorcycle no longer has a headlight, so we drove in the shoulder with a flashing turn signal to guide our way, splashing through pothole puddles. I’ve never been so happy to be wearing a helmet.

I haven’t hung out with Rafe since. Though he didn’t ask me to pay off his loan, I’m sure any future engagement with him would be a me-pay-everything affair. Besides, I simply have cooler people to spend time with. As for the trim, it was the first instance of quality workmanship I witnessed in this country; most everything is done so half-assed, with no sense of pride or perfection. I can only call it an inspiring event, and consoling, to know there are Dominicans who take their occupation seriously. And best of all, all the moms back in the ‘hood pinched my cheeks and said I had some premium Dominicana in my future.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


During one of our profoundly frivolous discussions, one of my trainee buddies broached the burning question: Would you rather get Dengue, or do a lap in an Olympic-sized pool full of feces? Having only a vague idea of the former—we’d had a lecture or two about it, sure, but you can really only know so much—but a very vivid one of the latter, I emphatically chose the Dengue.

Flash-forward a month or so. It’s Sunday night, and I’m suffering from a consumptive, devastating fever, measured at 103.3º. As the rain clatters against the tin roof, I lay writhing in the dark under my mosquito net feeling my mind detaching from current preoccupations and delving into the past. I relive experiences of all types from all ages in rapid succession, maybe 10 seconds dedicated to each. Some of these memories are the classics, the sort we revel in on occasion for years afterwards—memories from college graduation, for example. Others, the majority, are obscure reflections on moments mundane, of little consequence in the great progression of my life but novel and unexamined for that very reason. They evidently stuck around in the distant recesses of my mind, so maybe they’re of greater value than I realize. In the end it is a profound state of retrospection, but without any grand revelations: just long-lost memories reclaimed, and more proximate ones recapitulated. Next time I get feverish like that hopefully I can summon the energy to record what I’m thinking, for posterior evaluation.

Anyways, I continue in that state for another day or two, without appetite or energy, Ibuprofen being my only salvation and a tenuous one at that. On Wednesday the incomparable Doctora Lisette, who cares for all of us so well, picks me up and takes me to Clínica Abreu, where the real adventure begins. I had been under the impression that this was a place to relax, to recuperate, to be pampered, where you didn’t have to always be thinking, strategizing. Not so much, it turns out.

Blame it on the nurses, some of the most disagreeable and difficult people I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never felt so deprived of information, or so impotent to extract it. I wasn’t particularly interested in what they had hooked up to the IV. But how to turn on the TV—you have to turn on the cable box first—that’s important to know, right? Or how to get a hold of one of these elusive nurses—you can try dialing 375 on that phone over there, but more effective to just yell ‘¡enfermera!’ as loud as your debilitated lungs will allow you. It isn’t until night three of five that they give me one of those pee buckets, so I don’t have to haul the IV machine 10 times a day to the bathroom. And it’s strange, because Dominican women tend to be so warm and doting. So you’d think Dominican nurses would be even more so, ¿no? Maybe they were at the beginning, and serving all these ricos and foreigners, many of whom I’m sure aren’t so friendly either, just sucked the love out of them. To be fair, one or two, out of eight let’s say, performed like nurses should perform, and for that I thank them. I would also like to commend the doctors and their assistants: they were competent, and most importantly for me at the time, friendly. And the females among them: beautiful. I forget her name, but she was Japanese-Dominican, had an adorable accent when she spoke English, and that smile—it could melt icebergs and cause warring factions to trade guns for tulips. Drop me a line gurl.

On Friday I receive my first visitors. Luck would have it that an inordinate amount of Volunteers are in the capital for the weekend, and they’re all dropping by Abreu to see me and another Volunteer. The food there is mostly inedible—lots of tasteless potato puree, the one Dominican staple I just can’t dig—but my friends are totally clutch and bring me chocolate and bread, which quickly turns to diarrhea, but that’s fine. Most of all they—and all the other PCVs that stopped in over the weekend, especially Amanda Meng who tended to me most of Sunday and into Monday— remind me that Peace Corps is family, and this is how family members support one another. Sappy it may be, but when you’re ill it counts for a lot.

During this time I can’t help but think about my blood family as well. They are all in Montreal for Whitney’s graduation, which I had loathed to miss. On the other hand, if I had gone I would have spent a legendary family week in one of my favorite cities in bed, either in the hotel or the hospital. So in the end, in some tragic way, it worked out.

Two weeks since that fateful Sunday I’m feeling almost totally recovered. After numerous tests, the doctors decided it was, in the end, the dreaded Dengue. And they informed me that I had caught the Dengue at some previous point in my life, whether here or on one of my other journeys. What do you know.

As for the burning question, I guess at this point I’d rather swim in that pool of refuse. Life is all about new experiences after all, and now that I’ve had the Dengue one (again), I can only choose to take a poo dip.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Subtropically yours

It’s hot here. Daily highs are in the mid-80s, with some serious humidity to boot. Our tin roof transfers solar heat straight into the house, making the place insufferable during a cloudless afternoon. There has been, gracias a Dios, rain almost every afternoon and night. But it’s the season for that. Soon summer shall arrive and the rain shall, for the most part, desist. I fear what sort of climatological brutality the dog days of June, July and August might bring, though I’m certain it will result in lethargy. The neighbors are already talking about it, about how Mr. Gringo is going to hate summer life.

This ungodly climate has already resulted in much stinky sweat. Not the drenching, Patrick Ewing sort of sweat, but enough to leave a shirt ready for the washtub by noon. Take that shirt and give it a vigorous hand wash at least once a week, and within a month or two it’s looking pretty ratty. As a light packer, I might have only 10 shirts, which means I’ll be rummaging through used clothes at the mercado de pulga soon enough. To make matters worse, for both my clothes and my social standing: Since I’m allergic to antiperspirant—it leaves a fiery rash and small but sensitive welts in the armpits—I’m stuck with some Trader Joe’s unscented cotton-infused, yuppie-approved “deodorant”, only a tiny step above nothing. The best remedy would seem to be frequent showers, at least two a day, which Dominicans wouldn’t consider strange. That or spraying cologne in my armpits, which they might not find strange either.

Dominicans, in contrast, don’t seem to sweat. I’ve seen a few of them leaking before, but it seems that with most Dominicans their minimal fluid intake leaves their pores perpetually dry. They then interpret our sweating as a symptom of sickness, and ask us if we’re ok, if we have the famous gripe (cold, flu, general bad-being). We then say no, we’re fine, it’s just that it’s hot. And they nod in seeming comprehension.

In conclusion, I predict that dealing with the heat, with all its nefarious consequences, will be my most serious challenge as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Just edging out the appalling state of electricity in this country—think long blackouts, and lots of them—which I’ll discuss later on.