I have spent the last week immersed in Dominican culture. And I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to do so especially as my volunteer project begins in full swing next week. I feel I will be better able to serve patients in the community if I have a more in depth understanding of their lifestyle.
Before I delve into some of the experiences of this week, I want to take a moment to dedicate this blog entry to my friend Fermín. Fermín and I worked together at University Hospital in Cincinnati for three years. While I haven't seen him in person in a few years, we have maintained contact via Facebook and Skype. He followed this blog and often sent me messages of encouragement. When he learned I was going to his home country of the Dominican Republic, he was the first to reach out, offering contacts, advice, and unwavering support. He was scheduled to come to the DR himself in June for his brother's wedding in Punta Cana. I recently learned that Fermín passed away Monday night in his sleep- from what I read, a heart attack was suspected. He was in his 40s and had a wife and two young boys. This is an unexpected and incredible loss for his family, friends and community and I too am feeling the loss as I explore his home country. Please pray for healing hearts…
Most of this past week has been spent hanging out with Primi and her friends, Yake, Rosi, Celinee, and Yari. Wednesday night, we went over her Yake's house for a meal of “papas con pollo,” (potatoes with chicken), a delicious chicken and potato stew. Primi and her friends are all strong-willed, big hearted women, and also dedicated and talented softball players. They also talk extremely fast, as is characteristics of Dominicans and particularly in this part of the country. I'm embarrassed to say that as much Spanish as I thought I could speak, I could only understand some 60-70% of what was being said that night amongst each other. As they participated in a heated softball politics debate with a male softball community leader (poor guy was outnumbered!), we passed around a bottle of mamajuana. Mamajuana is a bottle containing special allegedly “medicinal” roots and herbs. The bottle is filled then refilled several times with the liquor of one's choice- in this case the girls preferred a sweet wine and when that ran out, some clear rum. Either way, the result is a sweet and herby flavor which might easily lead to intoxication if imbibed too quickly.
The next day, the same group piled into the back of Celinee's pick-up truck and headed about 40 minutes away to Bayahibe, yet another beautiful Dominican beach. The water was clear and calm, similar to Boca Chica, and the girls promptly set up camp in the shade. In general, it seems Dominicans shy away from the sun and prefer to bask in the shade of palm trees. That morning, before leaving for the beach, I attempted to recreate one of my family's pasta recipes. We took the pot of pasta to the beach and had a picnic- didn't quite taste the same but the girls seemed to enjoy it anyway, especially when accompanied by sips of mamajuana. The sunset from the truck bed on the way home was also amazing.
That night, Yari took me out to el “play,” otherwise known as an evening softball game (baseball is usually played during the day and softball at night). We sat up on a concrete structure behind home plate and cheered on both teams. Not too much soccer in this country- it's all about the baseball and softball, and this week is the national finals!
Friday morning, Yari took me out to her neighboring hometown of La Otra Banda (it took me a while to figure out that “The Other Band” was actually the name of a place, not a musical group or an event…). Her family lives on a farm and keeps a variety of animals including dogs, cats, goats, sheep, chickens, roosters (used for cock-fighting on Sundays), cows and horses. Yari asked one of her cousins to saddle up one of the horses and soon we were off on a ride through the surrounding sugarcane fields. Sugarcane is the main crop in this part of the island, and the fields are often burned due to wasp or pest infestations that make it impossible to harvest the cane. The result of burning is also a richer soil to plant next years crop. As we rode through the fields, the sweet smell of burnt sugar permeated the air. Later that morning we went back out to the fields on a moto to find the perfect sugarcane to sample. Yari knew just which field had the ripest cane, traipsed into the field, and used a machete to both chop and peel the cane so we could try some. The sugar was intense, but still a delicious snack, much better than processed sugar like cotton candy or Pixie Stix. =) Also delicious was the fruit I tried upon returning to the farm. Known as the “cajuil americana” or “American cashew,” it was like no fruit I had ever tried in the states.
Later in the afternoon, Primi and I met up with Yake downtown for a free Zumba class. Unfortunately, as is relatively common in this country, the power went out. Set on getting some exercise, we headed over to the basilica where there is a lovely walking/jogging trail that surrounds the church property. Not a bad alternative to Zumba!
Friday night was time for another “play.” We piled onto the moto and headed out to another softball field. As we drove through the streets of town, music was playing from houses, cars, bars and colmados (corner stores). Riding on a moto in a Dominican town on a Friday night feels a bit like driving through a jukebox that keeps changing tunes, and my friends seemed to know the lyrics to every one. I had a discussion with Primi about the safety of motos in the DR (or lack there of), and while she couldn't excuse the safety factor, she did have an interesting point of view. As she explained, Dominicans begin riding motos in the womb. When the mothers go into labor they are taken to the hospital on a moto. After the baby is born, they are taken to the house from the hospital on a moto (can you imagine riding a motorcycle just after giving birth, or even worse, having a C-section?). As small children, they are carted around regularly on motos, sometime with a family of five. Eventually, at the young age of 11, 10, maybe even 7, they are taught how to drive a moto and the process continues. It's a part of life. Fascinating.
Saturday Primi borrowed an extra moto and a few of us went out to swim in a local river. While the river was pretty and refreshing, the most beautiful part was the drive out to the river, several miles down a dirt road through the bucolic Dominican countryside, rolling green hills, palm trees, and mountains in the back drop.
After the river and a quick shower, I gave a women's health presentation at the conservative “Church of the Prophecy,” next door to Primi's house. I was asked to cover my shoulders to go into the church, and what waited for me inside was a group of men, women and children with a wealth of questions about sexuality, vaginal and breast health, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Over two hours of lively discussion and education later, the group stood around me and prayed simultaneously, each offering their own prayers up to God. It was a little surreal, but they seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to openly discuss topics that are often taboo within the culture and the church. I gave a similar talk yesterday in another church about an hour's moto ride north of Higuey, was received with equal enthusiasm and even got interviewed for the local news as I answered questions about breast cancer!
Sunday, I paid another visit to Santo Domingo (known more often simply as “La Capital”) where my friend Marlon showed me his friend's property complete with gardens, beautiful swimming pools, and even a natural pool in a cave underground. The place is often used as a wedding venue and with good reason!
Afterwards we went back to Boca Chica (I can't get enough of beaches, I know), went back to his place to clean up, and then headed down to the Colonial District. Every Sunday night in a plaza among some colonial ruins, locals gather together to dance to the music of a band that plays “son,” old styles of salsa, merengue and boleros. While dancing of course was fun, it was even more entertaining to watch the old couples swaying to the music of their time, singing along to the classics, and occasionally pausing to cheer when the local baseball team scored on the big screen TV next to the plaza. When the band took a break, we watched some folkloric dancers in costume perform a few traditional Dominican dances.
Last night, back in Higuey after my second women's health presentation, Primi and I stopped by the farm again where she promptly jumped into a game of Dominos, the most popular game outside of baseball/softball in the Dominican Republic. IN the evening we gathered again in Celinee's house for what the girls claimed was Dominican style spaghetti (more like macaroni and cheese, but yummy either way).
I feel like this week I've found myself somewhere between a tourist and a Dominican. I look up from the moto at the tour buses taking groups of “gringos” from Punta Cana around the Dominican countryside, and I realize right now I no more fit in with this group than I do among the groups of Dominicans I've met. I've been told my Spanish accent is changing, and now has a touch of Dominican in addition to the American, Mexican and Peruvian influences. I am somewhere in the middle, and I think since today marks my three week anniversary of arriving in this country, that this feeling is a healthy one.