I know I'm way overdue for blogging and I am missing it dearly. There is so much to write about the last 2 weeks, and now I am going to have to cut down on some of the details and hit only the highlights. I forgot how much blogging helps me to process my experiences, and I can say honestly today that I really do need to process them. Feel free to skip the text and let the pictures tell the story… =)
I arrived in the Dominican Republic on January 7. My flight was into Santiago, and as I had no connections in Santiago itself, I reached out to the couchsurfing community (www.couchsurfing.org if you want to know more about this). I took a 1/2 hour taxi ride from the airport to my host Paula's house, which ended up being a sort of commune for about 12 locals. All of the housemates were super nice artistic types, and Paula herself was a licensed massage therapist who also practiced art therapy, music therapy and acupuncture. Her most recent project was learning the violin and she had purchased a cheap green instrument that she asked me to tune up and give her a few pointers. What ensued, of course, was a “music night,” jam session with another violinist and a guitarist- a nice way to spend my second night in the DR.
Paula took me out during the day to run errands. The primary mode of transportation in Santiago is either motoconchos (taxi motorcycles) or actual car conchos. The car conchos have a set route and sort of function like buses in that people get out and in them all along the route. Except there are no official stops. And they are tiny cars. And they cram 9 people in them sometimes. So there is often a stranger sitting in your lap. But hey, 20 pesos (50 cents) gets you where you need to go!
After a couple nights in Santiago, I took a guagua (the Dominican word for bus or public transport minivan) up to Monte Cristi on the northwest coast of the island, near Haiti. Monte Cristi is the town where I will be spending much of my time, as it is the location of the volunteer house for Timmy Global Health, the organization with which I am volunteering. It is a town significantly smaller and poorer than the bigger cities of Santiago and Santo Domingo. From what I have been told, Monte Cristi used to be quite wealthy and prosperous. In the 1950s something happened in the town that offended the dictator of the time, Trujillo, and much assistance from the federal government was withheld, leading to an economic depression. Since then, even long after Trujillo's time, the town has struggled to regain its prosperity and the northwest remains one of the poorest regions in the country.
What the town itself lacks in economic resources is a stark contrast to the wealth of natural beauty just outside Monte Cristi. Arguably, some of the most beautiful beaches in the country are up along the northwest coast and, unlike the more touristy beach towns of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, the coastline near Monte Cristi is a national park, protected from the construction of hotels, resorts, restaurants, etc.
I am finally getting my fill of sunsets- of the dozens of pictures I've taken, here are a few.
The first person I met in Monte Cristi was José, a Peace Corps volunteer who is now the medical project coordinator for Timmy in the Dominican Republic. José lives in the volunteer house just a few blocks from the main street in Monte Cristi, where I will also be staying intermittently during my time volunteering. Last week I volunteered on another medical brigade, similar to the one I did previously in Santo Domingo, Ecuador, with a group of doctors, nurses, PA/medical and pharmacy students. We spent the week seeing over 400 patients who live in surrounding communities called bateyes. Bateyes are historically housing developments built to house migrant farm workers who worked in the sugarcane and and banana fields in the DR. Today, they are the homes to some of the poorest people in the Dominican Republic, including groups of both Dominicans and Haitians. Many bateyes have no running water or electricity, and the demand for basic human needs is great. Over the past decade and a half I have travelled to several poor communities in Latin America, including ones in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Peru, and no where I have I seen poverty like I did in the Haitian batey I visited with a few Timmy volunteers on the first day.
It was a really good week with the medical team, a typical brigade working in less than ideal conditions, getting creative with use of spaces (everything from schools to churches to dance halls), treating acute and chronic illnesses of truly patient patients that are sometimes difficult to find in the United States- the kind that will wait all day to see a doctor only to get a few tablets of Tylenol, and still thank you profusely. I was once again able to assist in the area of women's health, and performed pelvic exams on many women behind sheet barriers in the corner of the rooms. Lots of work, but high spirits all around, and we had some time to hang out in the ocean in the late afternoons and evenings. I'll let the pictures take the story from there…
I had to leave the brigade half a day early to bus down to the capital, Santo Domingo, to pick up my friend Sandra from the airport. Sandra is a “pana full” (the Dominican expression for “best friend”) who I met at the clinic I worked at in Austin. Despite the fact that she had a major arm fracture and subsequent surgery less than 3 weeks ago, she decided to keep her plane ticket and come visit me (she's one tough cookie!). We had a great weekend weekend together, walking around the historical district of Santo Domingo, checking out the nightlife (yes, she somehow managed to dance a beautiful merengue, even with a broken arm!), and of course spending some quality beach time in the neighboring towns of Boca Chica and Juan Dolio. We met a new Dominican friend, Marlon, who was gracious enough to drive us out to the beach. He was good company and we were also grateful to have private transportation as I'm not sure how the guagua or concho transport would have been for Sandra's arm. Our three days together flew by, and I was sad to see her go, but happy for the time I had to reconnect with my dear friend.
After Sandra left yesterday, I took another guagua to the town of Higuey to reunite with Primi, a friend off mine whom I haven't seen since I studied abroad in the DR in 2005. Yesterday was a religious holiday in the Dominican Republic, and Higuey happened to be the place where thousands of Dominicans made a pilgrimage to visit the basilica and ask Nuestra Señora de Altagracia (Our Lady of High Grace?) for miracles. As it was pretty chaotic downtown near the basilica, Primi asked me to have the bus let me off at a park just outside of town. I waited in the park for two minutes and then, there she was, on a moto, ready to pick up me and my luggage. It seems that really our only form of transportation around here is via moto. I am as careful as I can, and Primi who has been driving a moto since she was 11 years old laughs at me when I ask to use her helmet, but hands it right over! What can I say… I value my brain!
I am currently writing this blog from Primi's kitchen while she is off at work. She lives in a humble 3 room apartment (by 3 rooms, I mean kitchen, bedroom and bathroom), but her heart is bigger than a mansion. We've been sharing her double bed, in the good company of her cuddly chihuahua puppy, Blanca.
Last night we went into town to check out the basilica and the festivities. There were blankets, pillows and hammocks strewn out around the cathedral and people were lined up to get into sanctuary, lighting candles all around, and sleeping in corners on the floor. In the blocks surrounding the basilica there was a carnival festival with rides you couldn't have paid me to get on, and a little concert venue next to the baseball field. I sat with Primi and her friends in the bleachers, eating an empanada and listening to the merengue music until I could barely keep my eyes open. I slept well last night!
Today has been a slow day. We went out this morning to one of the farms where Primi works (she is a consultant for livestock, from what I gather) and then came back to her place where she made a delicious lunch of rice, salad, salted codfish and avocado. Then she showed me how to work her little washing machine which she picked up and put in the shower. I'm definitely immersed in the culture right now, and so far feeling pretty good. One thing I have to mention is how FAST Dominicans talk- I find myself struggling to understand much of what is said between the slang words, missing consonants on the end of words, and fast pace. Especially here in Higuey. Makes me feel that my Spanish is pretty bad…
Whew, that was a lot to write. Primi is working on scheduling me to give a few health talks at some local clinics and schools over the next couple days, so will report back on that soon. I plan on blogging more frequently so the entries aren't quite so long… Just heard Primi's moto in the garage. More soon…