Heading Home

I’m sitting here in the Santo Domingo airport waiting for my plane to board. There’s been a lot of time spent waiting over the last 10 months. Time runs slower in Latin America, and especially in the Caribbean where the word “ahorrita” could mean anything from 5 minutes to 5 hours from now. I know that my sense of time will be only one of the many adaptations I will have to make as I reacclimate to my home country. Several friends have suggested I take things slowly at the beginning, to commit to one thing at a time, and to take plenty of time for myself in prayer, meditation, and reflection. I intend to take this advice seriously and I ask that those at home reading this have patience with me as I get my ground again.

This will be the last entry in my travel blog for the time being. At least until the next adventure which I know will not be so far from now. In the meantime, over the last few weeks I’ve compiled my thoughts into a list of what I’ve learned since I first left the US on September 7, 2013.


How to whistle. Loudly.

How to share an avocado neatly and hygienically

How to live carrying everything I need on my own body.

How to use a sarong as a towel, hat, skirt, beach cover-up, blanket, curtain, privacy screen, and bag.

How to feel truly relaxed on the back of a motorcycle with no urge to hug the person in front of me.

How to use the door as leverage while squatting over a latrine

How to take a bucket shower. And lavish in it. Especially when the water is hot.

How to speak at least a few phrases in Haitian Creole and more than just a few phrases in Portuguese.

How to dance forro, samba, salsa, merengue, bachata and afrocolombian music.

How to appreciate both soccer and baseball more than ever before.

How to never stop being awed by waterfalls and sunsets.

How to quickly locate the coolest spot in a building, often a doorframe or front porch.

How to put a VPN on my electronic devices to watch TV shows from the US.

How to access a WIFI network whenever possible, especially in airports, even if it means flirting with an employee to give you the password.

How to treat dozens of patients at a time in a dark room with a dirt floor, using a stethoscope, otoscope, flashlight and my own two hands.

How to make mangú, an amazing mashed plantain dish.

How to treat gastrointestinal woes with home remedies.

How to appreciate both good coffee and good tea.

How to LOVE papaya.

How to chew coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness.

How to recognize, diagnose and treat the chikungunya virus.

How to coordinate and lead a medical brigade of 40 doctors, nurses, interpreters and undergraduate students.

How to effectively recognize crops of sugarcane, rice and bananas.

How to take care of myself when ill, and then how to truly appreciate when someone takes the time to take care of me.

How to navigate public transportation like a pro, be it planes, buses, taxis, shared cars, or motorcycles.

How to walk quickly with a serious, purposeful face, ignoring any calls or advances.

How to value a connection with a complete stranger, be it a moment of eye contact, a few minutes of assistance, or a few hours exploring together.

How to change in and out of a bathing suit underneath a sarong.

How to feel pretty and love my curves in a bikini or in blue spandex pants.

How to blow off blow dryers (and flat irons, and hair products).

How to be as demanding as a Dominican (it’s sometimes the only way to get what I need).

How to hone my bargaining skills.

How to quickly convert pesos, soles, or reais into US dollars in my head (but appreciate an app that does it for me!)

How to identify the ATM that never rejects my card or runs out of cash.

How to perform appropriate maintenance on home generator batteries.

How to sense when the electricity goes out and the generator kicks in.

How to sense in my gut when there is a high possibility of danger.

How to sleep under various conditions- including sweltering hot weather with discoteca music blaring.

How to go to bed early and wake up as the sun rises.

How to implement techniques to stay warm on an over-air-conditioned bus. (May involve shoving a sock in the vent).

How to get scared, and then excited about a blog post unexpectedly going viral.

How to be alone, and be okay with it.

How to let things that don’t matter go (I will ALWAYS be working on this one).

How to let my heart tell me when it’s time to stay, and when it’s time to move on.



And now it’s time to move on… and to be home with my family for at least a little while. Thank you to all who have taken the time to follow my journey. Until the next one…


A Birthday Adventure

My 31st birthday was one I will never forget and worthy of a blog post in itself. Let me start this off by saying I was promised an adventure. An adventure it was.

Marlon and I started the day early heading due west from Santo Domingo in his Toyota Camry. We stopped at a surprisingly American-feeling gas station, where I picked up a caramel cappuccino. I-pod was plugged in, On-The-Go playlist in process, and we were good to go. As we pulled out of the city, a beautiful rainbow stretched over the mountains, and I was sure it was going to be an amazing day.

Following Google maps on my phone, we navigated ourselves to the city of Bani. After passing through an intersection, the police on the far side, waved us to a halt. Apparently, Marlon had run a red light. (Let me pause here to mention that I can say confidently that Dominicans REGULARLY treat red lights as recommendations, not obligations, not that this makes it right). In this case, we looked around and there was literally no stop light at all within view. However, there is no point in arguing with Dominican police, and it was only my flirtatious smile and crooning “pero es mi cumpleaños!” that kept him from taking us both into the police station. He let us go with just the ticket though, which Marlon said would probably cost about 1500 pesos ($35 USD). It's how the Dominican government gets its money I suppose…

We continued following the Google map until just past the town of Azua, when the roads on the map ceased and I literally had to switch over to satellite view to see the lines of the dirt roads heading toward the tiny town of Barrera (see map below).

In Barrera, we asked for directions toward the beach and plundered on through one of the rockiest roads I've ever driven on (and that's saying a lot after living in this country for 6 months!). The road ended up dumping us into a field- obviously we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere down the line. As Marlon attempted a 12-point maneuver to turn the car around, we both felt a bump that obviously wasn't good. Sure enough, we had managed to get the driver's side rear tire stuck over a tree trunk.

Keep in mind, we are in the middle of NOWHERE. Over the next hour and a half, as Marlon chiseled away at the tree trunk with a screw driver and a wrench as a hammer (scavenged from the tool kit in his trunk), and I stood over him with an umbrella for shade, not a soul drove by. Finally, we were able to free the tire from the trunk!


We backed up the car to finish turning it around when PSSSSTTTT… not a good sound at all. Somehow the passengers side rear tire had now rolled into a bush branch and completely deflated.

Now we were really stuck. We walked up the road (if you can call it that!) to a house that appeared under construction, and called out over the fence. Luckily, a Haitian man was there with his wife and daughters. He had the number of a friend in the town of Barrera who knew a “gomero,” someone who fixes tires. Soon a guy came riding down the road on his motorcycle, with a “gato” (one of those things that raises the car up to change the tire). He raised up the car and pulled off the flat to examine it. The rapid conclusion was that the tire was irreparable.

The guys pulled the spare tire out of the trunk and quickly realized it was pretty flat itself. So the gomero called his friend to bring him a tire pump and they promptly pumped up and mounted the spare. We drove the car up the rocky road for about 2 minutes, with the motorcycles tailing us. At that point, the gomero flagged us to stop. The spare tire was already flat, and this time even the pump couldn't inflate it.

Time for a new plan. We hopped on the back of the motos and climbed the hill back into the town of Barrera.

In Barrera, the gomero walked us over to his colmado (corner store) where there were some seats in the shade. I bought a coke and sat down on one of the plastic chairs while Marlon headed with the gomero to look for a replacement tire for the car. While I waited, I observed the surroundings, typical of a small Dominican town on a Sunday afternoon. Bachata music was blaring from competing colmados, motorcycles weaved in and out of the streets carrying teenagers making their rounds (the equivalent of cruising), people chatted on the steps or in chairs in front of their homes, dust filled the air, and the heat of the day seemed to slow everything down. A drunk man staggered over and proceeded to try and flirt with me- always an awkward situation and made more awkward when he picked up my coke and proceeded to drink from it.


The hours passed as I sat there, and just as I was getting a little exasperated (and hungry!), the colmado owner handed me a plate of fresh cantaloupe and watermelon, and a fork. I can't tell you how much this woman's gesture meant to me- and she had no idea that it was my birthday!

Marlon and the gomero finally returned with a new (used) tire in hand, and quickly mounted it on the car. With two fruit cups to go, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were finally on our way!

It was getting too late to head to the beach of our original plan, so we stopped at another beach on the way back. It wasn't the prettiest beach in the world, but there were several Dominican families enjoying the water, and hey, a beach is a beach! The water was refreshing and it felt so good to wash off all the dust and stress of the day.

Back in Santo Domingo, we had a delicious dinner of Dominican sushi (complete with sweet plantains- my kind of meal!). It was a truly unforgettable birthday, and for this I am so grateful.




Top 15 Interesting Observations about the Dominican Republic and Dominicans

The last one of these was a hit, so I thought I'd give it another shot. Here are my top observations about Dominican culture…

1. Motos, motos, everywhere!

In most areas of the Dominican Republic, the most common mode of transport is via motorcycle. Children are taught to drive a moto even before the official legal age. Women are carried on a moto to the hospital when they give birth, they ride a moto home postpartum carrying their newborn. Dominicans pile their whole family of 4 or even 5 on one moto and then teach their children to drive a moto themselves so the cycle can start over again. It is ingrained in the culture, but is also likely the reason why the Dominican Republic is the #2 country in the world for deaths by motor vehicle accidents.


Washing machine delivery anyone?


2. Storytellers.

No one tells a story quite like a Dominican. Complete with dramatic pauses and engaging facial expressions (see #13), even the most mundane of events can be fascinating.

My 86 year old neighbor, Doña Pepe, is a fantastic storyteller.

3. Shade-seekers.

Unlike the thousands of tourists who flock to the DR every year on a quest for the perfect tan on one of the many picturesque beaches, Dominicans themselves have no interest in their skin getting any darker. The ideal time for beaching for Dominicans is after 4 in the afternoon, and preferably in the shade of an umbrella or palm tree.

Don't let that sun touch you! It burns!

4. Qué lo qué? (KLK?)

Literally translates to “what it what.” One of the many Dominican versions of “what's up?” Rolls nicely off the tongue.

This 6 year old tells it like it is!

5. A little coffee with your sugar?

I have yet to meet a Dominican who likes their coffee black. If you order a cup of coffee from one of the “colmados” or corner stores, unless otherwise specified, you will be handed a tiny plastic cup with strong coffee so sweet it might make your lips pucker- at least two heaping spoonfuls of sugar per cup. I'm addicted.

6. Street music.

In some countries, the term street music might refer to local musicians playing music in public spaces. In the DR, I use the term street music to refer to the constant loud music being blasted from homes, stores, restaurants, bars, and especially the back of pick-up trucks. While walking down a street in a town for just a few minutes, it would not be out of the ordinary to hear 5 or 6 samples of the most popular merengue, bachata, reggaetón and salsa music in the country. Everyone knows the songs because they are played so frequently, so you might find yourself swaying your hips in a spontaneous sing-a-long.

7. Spaghetti: an unconventional picnic cuisine.

Prior to living here, my idea of a picnic at the beach involved some ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit or potato salad, and chips of some sort. When I've asked my Dominican friends what we should bring to the beach or river to munch on, their first suggestion is inevitably spaghetti. I haven't quite figured it out but I can definitely go with it!

Nothing like the shade and spaghetti!

8. Mamajuana.

An optional but quite popular beach or party beverage consisting of a reusable bottle of several different roots and herbs. The bottle is stored in the refrigerator in between uses and all one has to do is add the wine or liquor (or both!) of your choice, let it soak up the flavor of the herbs, then imbibe. Potentially dangerous but delicious!

9. Disregard for traffic signals.

And other laws as well from what I've observed. Red lights are merely suggestions. But the most interesting observation has been that people actually have to be more careful when going through a green light than a red light because the chances of someone running a red light without looking are greater than the chances of you looking both ways when you run the red light yourself.


10. Showing regard for guests at the dinner table.

At first I thought it was just me. When I would eat lunch in the work cafeteria while everyone else got a plate covered in tin foil with their name on it, I got several separate little plates of food to serve my own portions. When this happened again at a friend's house, I started to wonder. I finally asked my friend and he explained that serving one's own portions on a separate plate is a courtesy offered to guests in this country. Thank goodness, at least at work I'm now “one of the family” with my own tin-foil covered plate!


11. Bananas for breakfast.

Breakfast in the DR is not a real breakfast without bananas or plantains, green or ripe, mashed, baked or fried. Period.

12. Pet names for everyone.

Precious. My heaven. My queen. My love. Doll. Beautiful. In my experience, pet names are usually reserved for mothers to their children or between lovers. So, when the man in customs at the airport called me his queen, I was a bit taken aback. Turns out this is the norm here between family members, friends, acquaintances and yes, even complete strangers.


13. Dominance of facial musculature in communication.

While Italians are known for talking with their hands, Dominicans manage to communicate quite clearly strictly with their facial expressions. My favorites? Puckering up the lips in a direction to indicate the location of something (Where's the music coming from? *pucker lips to the left= “over there”). Also wrinkling the nose to indicate something was not understood (this one I'm well familiar with.) And then of course, the drawing the teeth together and emitting a low hiss, the classic way to attempt to get a girl's attention.


14. Free ZUMBA!

A health initiative of the federal government, free Zumba classes are offered to the public in nearly all of the big cities and towns in the country. And let me just say, Dominicans know how to shake it!

15. An exceptionally welcoming spirit.

In all my travels, no where have I felt more embraced by people, welcomed into their families, homes and lives. For those that venture out of the resorts and start talking with the locals, it may be only a few minutes before you find yourself invited to dinner with the family, to a spaghetti picnic at the beach, or at a minimum, to share in a coffee break. This friendly and open spirit is exactly what led me to return to the Dominican Republic after my first trip in 2005, and what I know will bring me back again soon.





Trails, Transitions and Goodbyes

It's been a busy last couple weeks, and I'm starting this blog entry from the airport where I'm waiting for my flight home to Cincinnati. My Dominican adventures are far from over, however, as I have a return flight in a mere 10 days.

So, to hit on some of the highlights…

Before I headed back to Mao, I had the opportunity to experience the largest flea market I've ever seen. Right next to the Caribbean Sea, over a kilometer of wares spread out on blankets and tables, some shaded, some exposed to the blistering Dominican sun. Our mission: to find a pair of white tennis shoes for Marlon's nephew. Easily achieved.

The flea market

Back in Mao, it was time to dive into a new project with Dr. Yari. Yari has worked in the communities around Mao for a few years now, and is aware of a few particular communities where a high incidence of HIV is suspected. Our project involved four steps: providing HIV/AIDS education to those communities, offering free onsite HIV testing with funds from a government grant, counseling patients on results and assisting them in obtaining services with the public health HIV/AIDs department in Mao. After our first two days on site, of the 37 people we had tested, no less than 9 had come back HIV positive. Although these were preliminary tests and had to be sent to a lab in Santiago, 8 of the 9 were shortly thereafter confirmed. Obviously the need in these communities is great, and there is a lot of work to be done, both from an educational and health perspective. The biggest barrier to care will not be obtaining treatment- HIV medications are free to anyone residing in the Dominican Republic- but rather providing the education and transportation to reach the services. Unfortunately, my time in Mao has drawn to a close- but Yari, the Banelino team and the Mao public health services are taking up the reigns to continue follow-up with these patients and families.

Some were a little scared of needles...

Another project that Banelino sponsors is IDENE, a school for children with special needs. In a country where access to education in rural areas is often low, an institution like IDENE is quite impressive. The school is equipped beyond just classrooms, and includes interaction with animals, a full playground, a swimming pool, and even job placement opportunities in the community for high functioning students. For example, the students are taught handicrafts and how to bake delicious corn cakes, both of which they are able to sell. Pretty cool…

IDENE's beautiful and therapeutic pool

During my last few weeks in Mao there was, as always, time for some fun! Mao is known for its surrounding rivers, and was rumored to have some beautiful local hiking and swimming spots, but it wasn't until my second to last weekend that I was able to experience this in person, with the company of Marlon. The trail was quite scenic with a flowing and bubbling river winding to our left, and fields of crops and cows to our right, with mountains looming on the horizon. It was just really refreshing to get away from the merengue music and motorcycles, absorb the soothing sounds of nature, and cool off in the river whose current was surprisingly strong despite its smooth appearance. I almost felt like I was walking along the greenbelt in Austin (when it actually has water!), except for the cows that occasionally crossed our path (and bathed in the river too!).

The trail

A tree known as cat's claw, native to the DR, and a favorite back scratcher for wandering cows!

I met these kiddos washing their hair in the river

Baths for everyone!

As we walked back up into town, we passed a house on our right. I was struck by the simple beauty of a wooden shack home with a tin roof and walls, not out of place for the poverty on the outskirts of town. What made this home truly special was the tidiness of the yard, the attention to detail, the welcome sign on the door, the freshly planted tree and flowers surrounded by a truck tire, and the neat structure of the stick fence surrounding the property. There was an obvious aura of both humility and pride, and I had to pause to take a moment, and a picture.

The aforementioned house

It was hard to say goodbye to my friends in Mao. One evening during my last week, Nena and I got together at Yari's house for a spaghetti dinner. I was in charge of the pasta and, like any good Italian, I made sure the noodles were “al dente,” and slightly chewy. I had to laugh when Nena asked me to cook her and her daughters noodles until they were mushy- she couldn't stomach the idea of chewing, rather than slurping pasta. =)

My last weekend in Mao, Yari threw me a goodbye party (“despedida”) via a traditional Dominican cookout, or parillada, in her front yard. Lots of beer, barbecue chicken wings, hot dogs, music, and memory sharing- goodbyes are bittersweet!

Nena and Yari man the grill (and yes, those are real mangos hanging in the margin!)

Getting silly!

I wasn't the only one saying my goodbyes. As I transitioned to Monte Cristi to take over Jose's role for the next couple months, Jose himself was preparing to wrap up his two and a half years in the Peace Corps. I helped coordinate a couple of his despedidas, one with the health promoters from the bateys surrounding Monte Cristi, and the other with Dr. Garcia and his family. I can't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be making such a life change.

Jose and his Dominican family, the Garcia's

These health promoters are amazing women and I can't wait to work with them!

Gonna miss this guy!

In between despedidas, Jose and I worked together in intensive training sessions to impart to me all his knowledge about his role as Timmy's DR medical programs coordinator. It was a lot of information and I admit to feeling a little overwhelmed. This is the first time I've taken a position as a logistical coordinator, managing the organization's programming, finances, referrals and upcoming brigade. I think it will be good, although daunting, for me to put on some different hats for a few months.

Last Sunday marked a special day in the Dominican calendar, Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week (“Semana Santa”). Jose and I joined the locals in waving palm branches during the procession from downtown to the cathedral- it was really lovely. Semana Santa is a big deal in the Dominican Republic. After Wednesday, pretty much all businesses, restaurants, stores, etc are closed. Churches are open 24/7 with programming, masses and vigils. The streets become quiet. Most radio stations turn off the merengue music and replace it with quieter, contemplative tunes. The whole country seems to participate in the preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ.

I spent my last 24 hours in the capital with Marlon and his family, and stopped by his parish for a few minutes. In the center of one of the chapels was a huge display of a tree in the shape of a cross. A few guitars and singers kept prayerful music going while people filtered in and out, pausing to sit, kneel, pray and sing. It was a truly powerful spiritual ambiance.

I'm finally finishing writing this entry after having spent a week at home in Cincinnati. I head back to the DR on Monday morning, and I'm looking forward to delving into work, and spending some time with an old friend who will be visiting soon!



Rocking the Boat

Please forgive the length of this entry- it's been a long time since I've written and there is much to tell.

Ups and downs.

Part of traveling and essentially living abroad is experiencing both the high moments and low moments. I remember when I studied in Mexico in college our advisors gave us a presentation on the transgression of acclimation to living in a different country. Although I don't remember specifics, I do recall it involved a honeymoon phase, a crisis phase, and then a sort of stable in between phase. I remember my “crisis” in Mexico hitting about two months in, similarly in South America (right about the time I lost my debit card in Peru and almost got stuck in the airport in Brazil- feel free to cross reference that blog entry). It was due to happen here and I think I hit it hard. I am well on my way to the stability stage now.

I knew I was in trouble when I had lost my appetite to eat the delicious lunch they give us at Banelino. Even though my stomach was churning, I opted to keep my commitment to La Caida and hopped in between Elsa and her cousin on a motorcycle for the 25 minute drive out to the community. We made it about a third of the way there and the motor puttered to a stop. While we waited in a nearby store, Elsa called her son who picked us up and took us the rest of the way to La Caida. Sixteen patients later, my stomach felt awful and I was overheated, irritated and exhausted. We piled back on Elsa's son's motorcycle and about halfway home, his rear tire blew out. This time there was no store nearby to wait and rest, so we stood in the shade by the side of the road while Elsa's son rode slowly back to the nearest gas station. Thankfully, a public van pulled up soon, we crammed ourselves in, got out at the mototaxi stop downtown, and caught a ride up to our neighborhood.

Elsa and me, troopers

I ended up staying in bed most of the weekend with a low grade fever and what ended up being some sort of gastrointestinal infection. Yari started me on some antibiotics and probiotics which eventually kicked in- I recovered, 5 pounds lighter. I was so grateful to Marlon who came up from Santo Domingo to take care of me for the weekend. It is no fun to be sick in a foreign country, but over the few months I have spent here so far, I have developed a stronger support network than I was able to foster while constantly moving through South America last fall.

Despite my illness, we did manage to sit outside in front of my building for about an hour on Sunday to watch Mao's version of Carnaval. This time I was content to just watch the parade from the sidelines, and appreciate the variety of “leftover” costumes from both La Vega and Santiago.

Traditional costume from Santiago

And a devil from La Vega

After Marlon left to go back to work in the capital, I still wasn't feeling back to normal. The breakdown came about mid week. I had spent 4 hours straight seeing nearly 30 Haitian banana field workers, having a particularly frustrating time fighting the language and cultural barrier, while sitting outside in the heat, and deliberately letting myself dehydrate because the only available bathroom was a less-than-desirable latrine. My mother called me that afternoon to inform me that she was probably not going to be able to come down as scheduled that weekend as she was in too much pain from her knee- an incredible disappointment. By that evening, all I wanted to do was reach out to my family and friends on the phone, and my Internet connection wouldn't work, even on the street outside of my building. It was definitely the low of my time in this country and I have no shame in admitting I cried quite a bit that evening.

I wish this picture could capture the heat and chaos I felt that afternoon as the Haitian workers waited to be seen

At one point during the week, Elsa invited me over her house for what I thought was her daughter's birthday party but what ended up being an evangelical church service in her tiny living room. She promptly announched to the “congregation” that I was a visitor suffering some gastrointestinal woes. As could only be expected in this situation, the minister called me up to the altar to have the group lay hands on me and pray the illness out of me with simultaneous prayers.

An unexpected church service

Call it the prayers, medications, or my own body's defenses, but things were better and brighter the next the morning. By that afternoon, my mother had decided that she indeed would be able to make the trip (a good night's sleep apparently worked wonders for both of us!) and my spirits were lifted. Friday I had a great meeting with Yari and caught a ride with one of the Banelino farmers who was traveling to Monte Cristi. It was wonderful to be reunited with Jose for the first time in a while, especially over a dinner of crab sandwiches and passionfruit (“chinola”)- my favorite! We spent the next 48 hours catching up, prepping for the upcoming brigade, and squeezing in just a little long overdue beach time. Saturday was Lulu's (Dr. Garcia's wife's) birthday and we celebrated at the neighbor's house until it was time to head to the airport to pick up the team of students from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, plus a family medicine physician, another nurse practitioner, a microbiologist who works with Timmy, and my mama!!!

Happy birthday Lulu!

Much like the brigade in January, our week was spent seeing 388 patients in 5 different bateyes in the Monte Cristi area. This time I not only served as a provider, but also as an assistant leader, right hand woman to José. The students were exceptionally wonderful this time around, mature, eager to learn and participate, and enthusiastic. The week went smoothly, and ended on Friday night with a dance demonstration and mini Carnaval performance by a local youth group.

Reunited with a patient I saw on the brigade in January and her newborn!

My mama at work

This brigade's providers

Cutest kiddo ever!


Great group!

Timmy power!

Saturday, the group took a boat ride out to a local island called Isla Cabra. The excursion included a stop at a sandbar with “oatmeal sand” of an unusual texture that was supposedly great for exfoliation, breakfast on a platform in the mangroves, beach time on the island and a fish lunch- all-in-all quite a fun morning! We spent the rest of the afternoon doing an inventory of all the remaining medications from the brigade and helping the group prepare for their flight back to the States scheduled at 4am (the flight schedules out of Santiago are horrible!)

Exfoliating with the oatmeal sand

Luckily, my mother wasn't scheduled to leave with the group. She and I spent one final night in the hotel and caught a 7:30am bus to Santo Domingo. Marlon picked us up and took us down to the Colonial Zone to have lunch, check out some of the historical sites and do some souvenir shopping. He then dropped us back off at the bus station for another two and a half hour bus ride up to the city of Samaná in the Samaná peninsula.

We checked into a low cost but surprisingly clean and comfortable hotel, and had dinner at a local Italian place. It turns out, there are a lot of Italians living in the Dominican Republic, and particularly in the touristy areas. With open arms (and stomachs), we welcomed the culinary change from the typical Dominican food of rice, beans and chicken.

Cute Italian restaurant

The following day we walked down to the dock to board the boat that would take us whale-watching. Humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of the Caribbean during their mating and birthing season of January through the end of March. Heading out on March 26th meant we were taking a pretty good gamble that there may or may not be whales left to see. We rode for over an hour out into the Samaná Bay, scanning the horizon for signs of spouting water or splashes, and only saw one tiny splash way off in the distance. At that point, the captain of our boat got word from another smaller boat that there was a whole herd of whales visible, but they were pretty far out past the end of the peninsula. We followed the tip and another hour later, there they were. Sever or eight whales in a group, each one larger than our boat, surfacing, spouting and diving in the water around us. Turns out we got incredibly lucky. Humpback whales are solitary creatures and don't usually travel in groups, unless the males are getting desperate for a last minute mate, which was just the case this time. Our guide told us that this was only the second time this season they had seen so many whales together. The experience could only be described as awesome.

On the boat (post-dramamine!)

It was pretty hard to get a good picture, but look closely!

On the way back to shore, the boat dropped us off on an island off the coast known as Cayo Levantado. I swear, I thought the beaches on this island couldn't get any more beautiful than what I had already seen, but I was once again proven wrong. This was paradise to a new level. The water was perfectly clear, even where it was several feet deep. It was so beautiful that my mom and I decided it was worth a return trip the next morning to try out some snorkeling around the coral reef and to have a yummy seafood lunch on the beach.

We caught the last bus back to Santo Domingo later that afternoon, checked into our hotel, and had a traditional Dominican food dinner. There actually really is more Dominican cuisine than chicken, rice and beans- we expanded our horizons to sancocho (a stew with meat, potatoes, yuca, carrots, etc) and mofongo (mashed plantains with garlic and pork rind).

In the airport saying goodbye!

We dropped my mom off at the airport in the morning. As I wasn't scheduled to be back in Mao until Monday morning, Marlon and I took advantage of a few free days, relaxed in the sleepy beach town of Juan Dolio near Santo Domingo, and made a quick visit back to Higuey to say hi to Primi and the girls.

Sunset in Juan Dolio

Good times with good people!

I'm back in Mao now, where I will be posting this blog, finally, in the morning. Many of you who have made it to the end of this post may be wondering what's next for this globetrotter who seems to have gotten stuck in the Caribbean. As it turns out, traveling is much more enjoyable for me with the blessing of flexibility, and my plans are fluid. At this point, I have accepted a job position as an Interim Medical Programs Coordinator with Timmy Global Health. This position will last until the end of June while Timmy looks for a permanent replacement for Jose who leaves at the beginning of May. I will be home for a week in April, but upon my return to the DR will be moving up to Monte Cristi for my final two months. Plans beyond that are still in the works…

More ups and downs to come soon!



Working hard but having fun!

It's been a busy but fun last couple weeks. My last few days in the community of Amina were productive. Monday, I completed my talks in the packing plants on proper posture, lifting techniques and low back pain management. On Tuesday, I held a Pap smear clinic in the classroom of one of the schools in the community. The patients were all Haitian women, none of whom had previously had a Pap smear. At first just a few showed up, but those few reported back to their communities that the procedure didn't hurt and soon the line was longer. I reviewed the results with women last week; just a few were abnormal and required follow-up which they will be able to get with the assistance of Dr. Yari and Banelino, and therefore hopefully prevent progression to cervical cancer.

Our Pap smear set up- not too bad actually!

Fanny, a bilingual community member who was critical in working in this community

Banelino's nurse, Nena, has become a good friend here in Mao

Wednesday I was asked to give a presentation on teen pregnancy, STDs and sexuality at the high school across the street from the Banelino office. I assembled a quick powerpoint presentation (thanks to a cool website called SlideShare) and proceeded to present to a rowdy group of some 75 teenagers. Turns out a teenager in a sex ed class is a teenager in a sex ed class, no matter the language or the culture, and I found myself drawn back to memories of my own junior high school days. I guess the school appreciated it though, because they asked me to give another presentation next week!

If you look closely, yes, that is exactly what you think it is. Condom application lessons.

Thursday marked the moment for a midweek mini-vacation. I joined Jose and his visiting friends on a trip back to the paradise beach, La Ensenada. This time, we made a deal with Yari's cousin to take us on a boat out to a tiny island called Cayo Arena, surrounded by a coral reef. If La Ensenada was paradise, Cayo Arena was indescribable. I wish I had had an underwater camera with me because it was some of the most incredible snorkeling I've ever experienced- the brightly colored fish and coral were breathtaking. It would have been even nicer if the wind and waves were a touch less choppy- I kept having to blow water out of my mask. Having a guide holding my hand certainly helped! After visiting the island we took the boat through some mangroves, a unique natural phenomenon in the DR. Lunch was served back on the beach and then we had a few hours to lounge before heading home.

On the bumpy boat ride out to Cayo Arena

That's the entire length of the island- so beautiful!

Man groves, trees growing up from the water


Friday was an early morning. I went with the driver from Banelino to Amina to pick up 4 Haitian children and one adult, all with hernias of some sort. We rode together up to Monte Cristi where a surgeon from Nebraska was doing consults for a hernia brigade that will be coming in November. Just arranging the transport for the patients, most of whom didn't have passports was quite difficult. Unlike in the U.S., children born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented Haitian immigrants do not automatically qualify for Dominican citizenship. I am so glad we were able to work through the paperwork, however, because it turned out three of the four children were appropriate candidates for surgery and will be operated on in November. As a bonus, the doctor was very willing to teach and I learned a great deal about diagnosing and treating hernias!

That kiddo wasn't too happy to ride on my lap at first, but eventually he chilled out and fell asleep

Cute little one with a nice umbilical hernia. Luckily, hers will close on its own.

On Sunday, I was fortunate to experience yet another Dominican Carnaval celebration- this time in the town of La Vega, the location of the oldest and most well-known Carnaval in the country. Carnaval in La Vega is a several block parade of people in very elaborate devil costumes, somewhat of an irony considering the very Catholic population of La Vega. Anyone who is not dressed in costume is considered fair game to receive a “vejigazo,” a hard hit on the butt with a sort of bludgeon made originally from a cow's bladder (“vejiga”). What this creates is a palpable sensation of fear for anyone wandering in the streets of the parade. It was a sort of thrill to have to constantly look over my shoulder to make sure I hadn't caught the eye of any devils, and every picture I took with a devil (the costumes were so amazing, it was hard to resist!), I had to position my butt in front of the devil so as to avoid getting hit from behind by another devil during the picture. I know all of this sounds strange but it was truly a fun whirl of energy, sweaty heat, colors, music and dancing. And the good news is I survived with no black and blue marks on my rear end- I almost feel like I should have a T-shirt to proclaim that accomplishment!

Um... scary?

Purposely guarding my butt!

Thank goodness this one was staged...

I took a bus from La Vega back to Mao on Monday morning and was pleasantly surprised when a Dominican woman on the bus actually asked ME for instructions- what town were we in and how much longer till we arrived in Mao? Even more surprising was the fact that I could respond confidently and reassure her. Nice to be on the other end of this situation.

Last week I began working in my next community outside of Mao, called La Caida. It has been a fairly similar situation to my volunteering in Amina, spreading my work between the banana packing plants and the community itself. The difference is that there are many Dominicans seeking care in the town of La Caida, and I haven't been able to reach as many Haitians on the surrounding margins of the town due to the high demand in the town itself. My goal in the next 2 weeks is to reach more of these Haitians who are the higher risk population, with their barriers to accessing health care (as described in my last blog entry). I did manage to get a few Haitians to come to the community center yesterday for Pap smears- we did 22 in total over a few hours. And I'd have to say I have fallen hard in love with some of the locals in La Caida- here are just a few pictures! =)

Such beautiful ladies- 89 years old!

Teaching self breast exams (this poor guy got stuck interpreting as there were no bilingual females available!)

Tummy time...

These girls are actually 8 year old fraternal twins- one with blue eyes and one with brown!

The sweetest couple I've met this entire trip- she called him her media naranja (half orange, the Spanish equivalent of better half). I miss my grandparents!

One of the best things about working in La Caida has been collaborating with the health promotor, Elsa. Elsa is originally from La Caida but currently lives in Mao, coincidentally only four blocks away from my apartment. She is also a nurse which is super helpful! Over the last week and a half, she has become not only a co-worker but also a neighbor and a friend, allowing me to do laundry at her house, offering me meals, and even accompanying me to Zumba classes (exercise is always more fun with a partner!). I'm grateful for her energy, positivity, and kindness.

Elsa and Me- quite the team!

This past weekend, I went to Santo Domingo and experienced the fireworks show downtown in honor of Dominican Independence Day. Apparently this country has had several independence events in its history, but the one celebrated on the 27th of February is independence from the Haitians- ironic considering the current vast socioeconomic disparity between the neighboring nations.

It was actually a pretty impressive fireworks display!

I also had the opportunity to take a road trip from Santo Domingo up to Samaná with my friend Marlon. The drive itself was one of the most beautiful I've ever taken, straight through a rainforest type landscape. And, despite the overcast skies, the view of the Samana bay and the beach were both amazing. This country certainly has no lack of scenery!

Look closely, that's actually a body of water in the distance...

Need I say more?

I think this catches me up on blogging for now… Thanks for reading!



Getting the Groove

Of course, I'm long overdue for another blog entry. Somehow the time seems to fly by. I've been reading so many Facebook posts about the crazy wintry weather at home, and I am grateful every day for the warmth of the sun here in this country. I have also finally started to get into a groove here, feeling busy, happy, healthy and centered. Maybe it's all the Vitamin D.

It was good to be back in Monte Cristi with some familiar faces and familiar beaches, and just in time for Carnaval. Like Brazilians, Dominicans have their own version of Carnaval, a pre-Lenten festival celebrated every Sunday in the month of February. And many Dominican cities have their own version of Carnaval festivities. While the most well-known Carnaval happens in La Vega (I'm going in a couple weeks!), Monte Cristi's Carnaval is known as the most violent. Starting in the early afternoon and continuing well into the evening, the sounds of music and cracking whips can be heard throughout the streets of town. People (mostly men) dressed in sometimes elaborate costumes roam the streets engaging in whipping duels. The surrounding crowd has to be careful not to get too close!

Prepped for Carnaval (we know, we're not so politically correct...)

If you look close you can see the whips!

After a fun weekend of beaching and Carnavaling in Monte Cristi, I packed up most of my things and prepared to spend my first full week in Mao, where I will be volunteering until mid-March. Mao is a town about an hour and a half southeast of Monte Cristi. It's a beautiful little city, smaller than Santiago but significantly larger than Monte Cristi, a good size for me (especially since the grocery store has way more options!). While there are no nearby beaches, the popular outdoor excursion here involves swimming in rivers, and I hope to check it out soon. I am renting a “pensión,” a simple dorm style room with a dresser, bed, sink, toilet and shower. Yari, the doctor I am working with here in Mao, loaned me a toaster oven, minifridge and set of new sheets, and it's actually quite a cozy little space, especially with the monthly price of 3500 pesos (about $80). The only bad thing about the pensión is my rude neighbor, a rooster who nests below my bedroom window and thinks that 4am is a great hour to show off his singing voice. Thank God for ear plugs!

My pensión

My days here in Mao typically involve getting up fairly early (sometimes earlier than I would like with that rooster!), going to “work,” coming home, heading to the park for a free Zumba class (if Zumba was fun in the States, it's ten times more fun in an outdoor venue with some 75 Dominican women!), showering (the water is always freezing, but it feels better after exercising), making a toasted sandwich, checking a few emails (my Internet connection has limited data and is slow, but it works), and heading to bed.

Having fun at Zumba

My volunteer work involves collaborating with a local organization known as Banelino. Banelino was started in 1996 when several individual banana producers decided to get together and form a cooperative. Since then, the organization has grown tremendously. Both a portion of the profits from the banana producers and donations from sponsors allow Banelino to provide educational, housing, and health services to the producers, field workers and the surrounding communities. Yari is the doctor assigned to the Banelino clinic and she spends one afternoon a week attending patients in the banana packing plants in the communities surrounding Mao. I've really enjoyed getting to know the clinic staff, especially Yari and the nurse, Nena.

With Nena and Yari

I am taking that community outreach a step farther and am focusing on two specific communities where I go 3-4 days a week, either in the minivan public transportation or on a moto if I get a ride. In the mornings, with the assistance of Midalma, Banelino's super sweet on site health promoter, I give medical consults to the workers in the packing plants. In the afternoons, I set up shop in a church with a dirt floor in the batey where the workers' families live, mostly disabled people, women and children. I gave a talk last week to women in the community about vaginal and breast health, and tomorrow I will be giving presentations in the packing plants on low back pain and exercises to improve it. (This is one of the most common complaints I have seen in this community- working in the banana fields is no easy job!) Tuesday I plan on having a Pap smear clinic in a classroom of the local school building- I am anticipating some 30-50 women will come, and most have never had a Pap smear before.

Packing the bananas

Have to wash them first

My clinic in the packing plant

And the clinic in the church

The church pastor gratefully opened this space to me

Something I have neglected to mention up until now is that 90% of the patients I am seeing are actually not Dominican, but Haitian immigrants. This means I am faced with a whole new set of challenges, attending some of the poorest people I've ever worked with and navigating both a language and cultural barrier. I have the interpretation assistance of another worker from Banelino some days, and of a bilingual Haitian in the community on other days. I am also working on picking up a few Creole phrases myself- it's closer to French than Spanish but a pretty complicated language from what I can tell. The Haitians I am seeing in this community are very isolated; many have never been to a doctor. When they are sick, it is a risk to travel to the clinic in Mao because most are undocumented and could easily be picked up by the Dominican immigration authorities in the process. It's amazing how immigration issues parallel each other world wide.

On the days I am not in the community, I am spending some time assisting in well-child visits at the local hospital and shadowing Banelino's rehabilitation center where physical and occupational therapists treat both adults and children. It is interesting to observe how Dominicans practice medicine, especially in settings of limited resources.

This little girl and I got a bad case of the giggles together!

That is one well child!

Of course, in no way am I living on this beautiful island spending all my time volunteering. Last weekend, I helped host two visitors from Cincinnati, Christy and Anna. Christy is actually an old acquaintance of mine who had no idea I was volunteering here. She coordinates the Global Health program in the Family Medicine department at the University of Cincinnati, and was checking out Mao as a potential site to bring a medical brigade from the university. It was wonderful to be reunited and, after a day of site visits in Mao, to spend an afternoon at El Morro, the breathtaking beach in Monte Cristi.

No matter how many times I go here, it's always gorgeous!

Last Sunday, Jose, two other new volunteers in Monte Cristi and I took a day trip to La Ensenada, a gorgeous beach on the north coast of the island. The trip involved a bus ride and then some negotiations with a cell phone store owner to give us a ride 45 minutes on a dirt road up to the beach. The alternative would have been a truly bumpy ride on motorcycles so we were grateful for the air conditioned car.


This weekend we celebrated Valentine's Day with some Peace Corp volunteers in Monte Cristi. On Saturday it was back to Mao to attend Midalma's daughters wedding in Amina. Before the wedding, Nena took me to my first Dominican salon experience. It was not a particularly positive one, I'd have to say. The mani/pedi, while at a very reasonable price of about $7 total, was under questionably sanitary conditions and took forever with all the breaks for socializing in the salon. And a simple hair wash and blow dry (I don't have a hair dryer down here and for once thought it would be nice to have a good hair day) ended up taking an hour. Today I've been laying low recovering from something that didn't sit too well in my stomach at the wedding last night- but the food was so good it was totally worth it!

At the wedding with Banelino friends

Tomorrow it's back to work in Amina, and I'm looking forward to it… will try to be more diligent about posting sooner!