Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Home Again

As my final post nearly a month after our return home from the Dominican Republic, it is difficult to explain exactly how thankful I am for the trip - in retrospect. The past month has been filled with a series of emotions and adjustments to US life.

Our first day back was wonderful; we ate large, American meals, slept comfortably without mosquito nets, and enjoyed the crisp autumn air. Everything seemed so clean, big and welcoming. It was nice to be home again.

But within a week, my shoulders grew tight, my neck stiffened, and my head began to pound with forgotten stresses. Being home without a job was tough to cope with. I wanted things to do, places to be, but had the conflicting negative emotions toward our on-the-go, fast-food, mega-mall lives. I couldn't stand buying anything unnecessary. Materialistic needs were hard to justify. But social and professional progression called for new purchases, happy hours and fashion updates. 

The toughest part? The growing stressors caused a startling realization: before the D.R., this was normal. I never questioned my sore muscles because who doesn't have stress here? It was unusual to enjoy the day-to-day because, honestly, who does that? Not that there isn't stress in the D.R., there is plenty. Worrying about a roof overhead, food on the table, and other basic survival necessities sure can be stressful, but the worries were on a daily basis: if there's enough money for today, everyone's satisfied. I've never seen so many smiles in my life.

A month later, back home, the stress has grown seemingly permanent. I'm looking to balance the values I acquired while maintaining with the American dream. Is it possible to stay relaxed while keeping pace with smart phones, digital evolution and every job applicant out there?

I don't mean to say we're not happy in the states, but lets be honest. When was the last time you smiled just because your dish washer runs, or your basic needs are met?

I am afraid to admit this may just be life: always working a little too hard toward the next best thing. But I'll continue to try to hold on to values learned abroad: a washing machine with a speedy dryer is one of the most amazing inventions of mankind. Period. I dare you to wash and dry your clothes by hand for a day. It'll quickly replace that gym membership of yours...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Crisp Refreshments

With our time in the Dominican Republic coming swiftly to an end, Matteson and I worried our chances to experience the widely popular waterfalls in the mountains of Limon were becoming unlikely.

Fortunately, Library founder Jose Bourget and his wife sensed the panic in our voice as we repeatedly expressed our desire to hike the falls before taking off for home. We tried to sound cool and suave, but let’s be honest. If you know us, you know we’re not good hiding our feelings.

And sure, we could have gone alone, but Jose made it clear the price alone was $50/person, but to travel with him, as a Dominican, would only cost us $10. With little extra to spend, the wait was worth it.

Finally on Sunday morning Jose, Annette, and their two children (Ana-Evelynn and Kiran) picked us up in their truck for a bumpy, dangerously curvy ride through the mountains of Limon. We picked up two exuberant German girls on the way – Leah and Coco – and they rode with long, terrified expressions in the back of the truck. We arrived at the house of Senora Josefina, an elderly widow who lost her leg years ago to infection, has too many children and grandchildren to count, and owns a large piece of farm land where they have established hiking paths to the falls. The house and barn shared land with chickens and pigs running wild, an oversized rooster strutting the property, and a mean dog that three-year-old Ana-Evelynn could not stop smooching. Through the chaos we followed Jose into Senora Josefina’s home where they greeted one another as old friends. Apparently he has been using her services to the falls for nearly six years now.

Offered by the business of Senora Josefina are: Horses to ride the trails, a tour guide for each horse, muddy, wonderfully slick paths to the falls, and at the end of the excursion a traditional Dominican Republic meal.

Annette and Ana-Evelynn rode one horse and Kiran rode another to the falls while the rest of us opted to hike. Some warned us the hike would be incredibly difficult, others described it as a piece of cake. With history of long, buggy hikes in our past, we chanced for an easy walk, overestimated our strength and opted to travel “a pie”, Spanish for “by foot”.

Good news, the hike was a cinch. Four hills, two creeks and 45 minutes later we were at the first of the falls, overwhelmed by the chilled air and beauty of it all. Two minutes later our group of eight had stripped to suits and were swimming over jagged rocks to the falls, then to the cave beyond.

The next fall was larger, with men charging entrance at the top. The stairwell down was actually just an extremely dangerous length of boulders assembled to slightly resemble a stairwell. It took nearly 20 minutes to ascend the steep stairs as it wrapped rock next to the incredibly large waterfall. I’d guess its height measured 200 hundred meters, but you can check with Rick Steves to be sure.

We swam in the falls for hours, back and forth, with the current and against, like little kids at a water park. There were places for high jumps, too, and smaller falls to explore. The smaller falls were only accessible after crossing the larger by a path of slick rocks a few inches below water, keeping balance with a rope tied between trees.

Our excursion was everything we had hoped for. We left the falls chilled and exhausted. Ending our trip at Senora Josefina’s, we sat down to an incredible meal. The fried yucca tasted like an improved potato wedge. We also had fried, salted plantains, a fresh avocado and tomato salad, savory chicken and a mix of rice and beans. All washed down with a cold Presidente and we were satisfied. Our muscles worked, our eyes droopy and our stomachs full, we sat for another hour sipping coffee from Senora Josefina’s farm. In a cup made for espresso shots – no room for milk – the coffee was dark, thick, and delicious. Turns out everything from our meal but the Presidente was planted and raised on Senora Josefina’s farmland. Jose pointed out her field of almond trees, grapefruit, plantains, coffee beans, cocoa plants, sugar canes, avocados, and so forth. And that chicken we enjoyed was the one we had stepped over earlier upon our arrival.

Thank goodness I’m not vegetarian.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Knocking Next Door

What’s a home without neighbors? Always there to keep an eye out for trespassers, a friend to share lunch with, to take long walks around the neighborhood, to gossip, exchange family stories, and so forth. In good neighborly conduct, a basket of home baked cookies or a sweet pie is offered when new families move next door. Sugar is shared, maybe a cup of flower or a bit of milk. It’s not much different here in Las Terrenas. We share the things we don’t need, the free gifts we receive (occasionally) in excess, books we have already read, and anything else appropriate. But never did we assume our friendly Haitian neighbors would suppress their pride long enough to request financial assistance. It took all of five minutes for the doe-eyed young woman we’ve been sharing gifts with to tell her story. In halted Spanish she explained, “We do not all work, I do not work. Do you have a job? We have to pay for house, can you help? Do you need me to work for you? Will you help us?” She batted her eyes once, twice, fiddled with the fencing, and waited for my response.

I’ll admit she hit me dead-on with that sympathy card. Though I’m skilled at confrontation, it is difficult to say no to anyone with less than I have. Here, Matteson and I have very little to share, but what’s $5 to us is $50 to our neighbors. So I hesitated. And you should have seen her perfected pout. Then I realized, ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…’ Remember that book? After $5, will they believe when we say we don’t have more to spare? Will they see what we have through the windows, assume it is unnecessary, and try their luck at crawling inside and getting it for themselves?

Over and over it’s been explained to us: Las Terrenas is a safe place with wonderful, beautiful, kind people. But a bad economy hits this town hard, and a few years of hunger makes stealing more and more tempting – even to the kindest of locals.

So I said no. We’ll give them our extra fruit, the pans we don’t use, the leftover food that may go to waste, and a book here and there. We’ll offer them our free English lessons at the library and anything else we can. Even a cup of sugar - if we had any. We will keep saying hello, making small talk. But for however I can justify not giving up any extra money we have for them, the guilt isn’t going anywhere and no extra amount of bananas is going to make it disappear.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

International Fair

Last weekend we enjoyed three long days of Las Terrenas’ annual “Etno Mix!” From morning ‘til night the local’s hot spot, playa Punta Popi, was wafting incredible scents of global cuisine across the sea. There was Spanish paella, German goulash, Italian pasta, French crepes and American hotdogs. The Dominican’s had a booth loaded with the nation’s prized beer served from the freezer, Presidente (comparable to Key Stone Light from a college basement keg), along with fresh hotdogs on a stick. Not corndogs, but naked dogs, somehow different from the U.S. booth’s hotdogs because these are ordered as “Chinchillas”, the Spanish name for the exact same sausage of rejected meat. And chinchillas have mayo. Yum.

There was a Haitian booth with, unfortunately, the same meals offered three blocks down at a local Dominican restaurant. To make up for less interesting food was their rum. Though we didn’t personally make a purchase (a limited budget means we made a choice for French Pate instead), we got a taste along with a great story. The rum served has always been high-class, but its popularity has skyrocketed since the earthquake shattered all means of producing it, along with half of all bottles remaining.

Unable to enjoy all the fun, Matteson and I were asked to work two shifts, taking charge of the burgers, beers, and Statue of Liberty. Aware of his burger-flipping talent back stateside, Matteson was assigned grill-duty. This included but was not limited to a fresh spatula, a seat behind the booth, one Budweiser (a definite upgrade from the usual Presidente) and, brace yourself, an American flag apron. He wore it as any good housewife would.

I proudly stood front and center beside the “I Heart America” sign and took full charge of the money-holding fanny pack, with just enough pockets for every peso there is. There are a lot, mind you. 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000… and I had a zipper for each.

While working, we had the opportunity to meet a delightful mix of some of the most interesting American’s I will ever have the pleasure of meeting – and hope never to meet again. One preached of a better nation, claiming to be a “citizen of the world” with a “passion for peace,” though every comment of his was tainted with curse words, prejudices, racism and a bit of spit. Say it don’t spray it, buddy. Another went on and on about black and white, though at first I couldn’t tell if he was speaking English or Spanish. By the time I realized it was English, I couldn’t decipher if he was discussing people or checkerboards. 

Outside our booth, the Etno Mix was as exciting (but felt much safer). The colors were brilliant; booths decorated with endless flags and posters of self-identification, falsely edited photos for promotion, fact books and, of course, the occasional downed power line. At night the lights were bright and the music vibrated our innards, gladly. Hiding behind a large speaker - so our library kids wouldn’t pull us into the swarm of flailing limbs - we watched all ages jump along to the local version of Hannah Montana. Except her voice was raspier, her hair darker, and her breasts far too large to be doing hops and skips. The kids loved her enough not to notice, but her outfit looked like some mix between a Hansel & Gretel and Candy Striper’s Halloween costume. Every audience member under the age of 15 was captivated by what we, Matteson and I, agreed to be a nauseating mash-up of oranges, yellows, stripes and glitter on a puffy skirted dress and frilly laced sleeves. As I stood there taking in all the chaos I realized – I must be getting older. I  remember the days when Lance Bass’ bleached, spiked hair was just to die for, and the soprano pipes of Nick Carter were, like totally, perfection.

Beyond the stage were boys wrestling in the sand, couples on the beach, and girls in every pose begging for friends to take their photo. Behind the crowd across the water was constant heat-lightening, brightening the grounds and the mountains beyond.

It was quite an event we were lucky to enjoy, once a year in Las Terrenas.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Abundance of Beauty

Most of you have probably already heard: the U.S. moves too fast. We know patience is a virtue, family time is valued, and hard work with no play means a heart attack at the ripe age of 55. But the pace is addicting, and our attraction to competition means we’re not slowing down ‘til Mr. Jones does first.

But maybe if we had [public] white sand beaches, crystal-clear oceans and large shady palms to rest under, siestas wouldn’t be so foreign. And maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t care to keep up with those Jones’.

The Dominican Republic may have a very poor population. Their streets may be jagged, their stray dogs rampant and their structure nonexistent. Despite it all, I’m beginning to realize they are incredibly wealthy in ways we discount in the U.S. Their soil is luscious – take a twig from a tree and stick it in the ground and in weeks you’ll have leaves sprouting. One mango seed planted in your backyard – no maintenance required – yields endless, delicious fruit. See a bush you’d like in your garden? Cut a few leaves from the plant, stick them in the ground, and there you have it. Compared to Minnesota, it seems impossibly magical.

Bananas, oranges, lemons and limes, almonds, cherries, guavas, pineapples, and mangos are among the fruits in endless supply, year round. Looking for protein (besides the almonds)? Down every street a local butcher is slicing and dicing meat killed, cut and cleaned just this morning only a few blocks away. It’s as local and organic as you can get. Looking for an item to sell on the go? Juices are easy and inexpensive to make, yet delicious enough for tourists to pay ridiculous amounts for.

Mix the foods up with the colors of sarongs and bright buildings and, looking past the crumbling cement walls, you’ve got yourself paradise. Homes hardly need windows because the breeze is worth the mosquito bites, and lizards will find their way in no matter what you’ve built. Laundry is washed and hung to dry, and if it’s a rainy morning? Don’t sweat it – by afternoon the clouds will clear and the clothes will dry. Actually, rainfalls hardly last long enough to grab an umbrella – you can wait the rain out under an awning and hardly waste any time.

So while we see them as a poor group of people, with outside influence of fancy TV’s and speedy vespas, these locals would realize how wealthy they are. No wonder the land was so hungrily sought after.



Monday, October 11, 2010

Everyone's a Mama

Here in Las Terrenas we’ve had enough discussion of teenage pregnancy, and we’ve seen enough teenage pregnant bellies to dispute the assumption that it’s common and commonly accepted. But our time with prepubescent girls at the library has allowed us to understand another side to the equation. Girls aren’t just getting pregnant because because they don’t know better, or because sex = money and that’s that. Peer pressure is seemingly a major motivator.

Ever seen the Lifetime movie “Pregnancy Pact”? Unfortunately, I have. And as surprising as the event was in the states, I can’t imagine it making even headlines in Las Terrenas.

Here’s what I mean. At the library any given day we tend to have 15 to 20 of the same girls, ages 6-11. Though I expect these girls to read and play freely and run around making messes of their projects – and don’t get me wrong, some do – there is a handful who take it upon themselves to be overly helpful. While others are beading, they’re cleaning up. If 6 year olds are misbehaving, a couple 10 year olds will grab their hands and lead them to a corner in the library to read to them. They independently host story hour with the younger children and practice reading. It’s wonderful, but I can’t help feeling sorry they’re missing their own fun.

I continuously question their home life. Most say they enjoy school, but they love helping their mother clean and cook because it’s easy. In addition, more than I’d like to count have happily admitted there are days they miss school. I’m appalled but try to conceal my shock when they calmly state, “Of course, my mother works and I look after my sisters.”

Wait a second – you’re 10 years old and you stay home with your siblings? Most 10 year olds in the states aren’t even trusted to care for themselves, let alone a less capable child!

In addition, some young girls show up with their siblings in tow. Naiobi is 10 years old and every afternoon she strolls in with a bottle in hand and her 2-year-old sister trailing behind her.

Other days, 10-year-old Surieli shows up with her 4-month-old niece for an afternoon of projects while the mother of the baby, Surieli’s 16-year-old sister, works at a restaurant nearby. Even if Surieli has homework to get done, there’s the baby on her lap always working to distract her. What surprises me further is that plenty of the other young girls and boys (Stephen especially) are happy to help out. Even students Surieli doesn’t know (I’ve asked) will reach over and take the baby off her hands. What I’m thinking is, wouldn’t you rather be playing Uno?

So while I’m considering the consequences and missed opportunities due to teenage pregnancy, these young girls don’t mind the household to-do’s, and by age 10 they are their own mother. Most of these girls are incredibly smart, but what we dismay as irresponsible parenting is what we may come to understand as a building point for family education – these girls are impressively responsible.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Stroll Through Town

Take a walk with me through Las Terrenas. We see quite a bit more than my camera can capture; men on motoconchos with televisions on their laps, families of four on a single vespa, maybe a dog in front with paws on the handle bars. There are dogs everywhere, large and small, and it seems they got the memo that any gringo – any foreigners at all – will share money and food if they beg long enough. Jokes on them, we tend not to have leftovers.

On our 30-minute walk from Casa Paz to the library we follow a single road, one of two main one-ways in Las Terrenas. We pass over the cool running creek on a crumbling bridge the width of my soldiers – to misstep would be a 10 foot fall into the same water locals use to bathe, clean laundry, and relieve themselves. We cross the street and follow the one-way past a few small “restaurants” serving on the patios of family homes with delicious local cuisine at low rates made cafeteria style and served at whatever large tables they could piece together: plastic, chipped wood, card tables, whatever. Then past a delicious French bakery and cafĂ© with a well-shaded patio and low-priced espresso. Over a few potholes and we continue on past more family stores selling second-hand clothes with the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy, Gap, and numerous U.S. university T’s. Some are open windows with a sign in front and a case or two of empanadas or homemade deserts. Behind the window is a family kitchen, maybe a single room with a stove and a bed, maybe a dining table.

Beside the shops along the road the ‘sidewalk’ crumbles in places and curves this way and that at strange angles. There is no rule on the alignment of homes and buildings – I can’t imagine how any perfectionist could handle a stroll through town without a couple panic attacks. If there’s a single level in this town no one bothers to use it. I like to think of the chaos as creative construction.

Every day we see more kids; babies crawling on the pavement near the streets with stray dogs waltzing over them and toddlers climbing the loose wires and unkempt properties or unfinished building projects. Oh, and the downed power lines? We’re still waiting for a story to come out of those – they’re everywhere!

Between the shops and crawling naked babies are old women soaking their feet on the sidewalk, a baby in their lap and another one or two nearby. Not their children, of course, most likely grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Mixed amongst these sights
are a number of large lots piled top to bottom with beautiful Caribbean paintings. I can’t help but stare, though every time we pass we get haggled by one artist or another, desperate for a sale. I wish I could help them because their work is beautiful. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mention to these guys that posting three different “galleries” on a single street corner makes for fewer sales and higher competition. Oh well, the view is fabulous. We also pass along apartment buildings, bright hotels, grocery stores and beautiful patios filled with overgrown palms and tempting scents of freshly baked bread, smoked chicken, and well-seasoned rice and beans.

The most miraculous of our walks is a fact on Las Terrenas we recently learned. The old women we see? They definitely weren’t schooled. Their children weren’t either, unless they could afford to pay for a private bus to drive them at four in the morning over the mountains to the only school in the area. And all these little restaurants we pass? They’ve doubled and tripled in the past ten years after local effort was made to create small-loan programs (unfortunately the programs are based on minimal government funds and foreign donations, so while they are helpful, the money is inconsistent). Just ten years ago not a single road was paved and there was not one local school beyond 3rd grade. Education is basically brand-spanking new, as are the crumbling sidewalks (interesting). And those downed power lines we see? Just 16 years ago the government built the first power line in Las Terrenas. Before that, there had never been electricity in this town. Even after it was offered, the idea of purchasing something they’d never needed before seemed ridiculous and was very slowly accepted.

So for all my pompous comments on how many ways Las Terrenas is behind the U.S. they’re evolving quickly and I can’t blame them for having difficulty keeping up. While the slanted houses and crumbling sidewalks drive me crazy some days, the brightly colored clothes and beautiful paintings, the palm trees and the laughing naked babies make it worth the walk. 

A Street View

Local Apparel Shop

The Corner Store

A Painter's Studio