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