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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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!)
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.
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 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).
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.
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!