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.
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.
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…
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!).
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.
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!
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.
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!