Final Thoughts on Island Life

Stepping off the airplane in Santo Domingo, all it took was one breath of thick sea air to confirm that all of my day dreaming and exploratory web searches had not prepared me for the months ahead. My studies and travels in the Dominican Republic started with the culture shock of life revolving 180 degrees away from the familiar. My experience took on the sights, sounds, and colors of a Caribbean island, with me dropped into its mountainous center. The sun was brighter and the landscape greener. Streets, markets, and neighborhoods bustled with people, cars, and motoconchos; bachata and meringue constantly blaring from somewhere. Over the summer, these new parts of life became commonplace and I learned to expect the unexpected.

As someone with a great interest in nutrition and food, I had high hopes for Dominican cuisine. Swirls of fresh fruits and vegetables and fish freshly plucked from the sea dominated my dreams. Unfortunately, all I found was a reality of fried salami and heaps of boiled bananas. In a country surrounded and permeated by so much water, the only fish I was ever served was in the desert- the least appetizing but most memorable meal of the whole summer. After four hours by bus, locally referred to as gua-gua, taxi, and one invigorating motoconcho ride, our western heading landed us my friend Sara and I the rural town of Palo Verde to do research. Surrounded by miles and miles of mosquito infested rice and banana fields, the town- 15 miles as the crow flies east of the Dominican-Haitian border- is carved out of the desert landscape.

The trip to Palo Verde was a last minute decision, well off the beaten path. Sara was studying Haitian access to healthcare and I, inspired by many Dominican meals with my host family, was interested in how the fried, sugar-laden, starchy foods relate to the ever-growing chronic disease epidemic in Latin America. Palo Verde was my control. With little access to motorized transportation or money to buy sugary drinks and processed foods, the people of Palo Verde still walk their dirt roads and eat the plantains and cherries off the trees growing in their back yards. In a country so influenced by the Western world, Palo Verde is Dominican life on a slower pace, set back from the urban pull. Palo Verde is a poor village, and a hot one at that, but the people on this island are adapted to their environment, as a temporary resident I had to adapt as well.

Sitting in the shade out of the afternoon sun beating down on a home in Palo Verde, I watched two Dominican men expertly construct a chicken coup. A gift from the local Peace Corps volunteer I was staying with, I offered my services but quickly realized my help was not needed in the construction. So I sat back taking in the sights and sounds of my impromptu adventure: men returning from the fields, machetes in hand; the Dominican family playing dominos, a pregnant Haitian woman returning to cook dinner with a bucket of water balanced atop her head; and another bathing out a makeshift trough, her belly bulging with the next of her many children.

The sun was setting over the banana fields and the final pieces of zinc roof were nailed onto the chicken coup. Intuiting my hunger, the grandmother of household, who had been entertaining me all afternoon, brought me dinner: a bowl full of starchy white vegetables garnished with some white fish. Discreetly shoving the bland boiled bananas and yucca aside, the savory fish was the only part of the meal I could stomach. ‘From the ocean or river,’ I asked with a contented smile. Finally, I thought, meal after meal of rice and fried chicken and here of all places I’ve found some fish. ‘From a can,’ my satisfied hostess relied. What did I really expect from the desert? Grateful for the hospitality, I ate it anyway.

Palo Verde felt as distant from home as I ever felt during my summer in the DR, an island within an island. For sixty days, I had the opportunity to step outside myself, living, learning, and working in the Dominican Republic. It felt different, tasted different, looked different, and sounded different. I faced culture shock, confusion, discomfort, and the fierce realization that American life is far different than the way billions of people on this planet live. Looking at America from the Dominican point of view clarified its enticing attraction and illuminated its excessive overindulgence.

The stunning contrast between what I took as a natural part of life, an entitlement, and the realities of life in the DR was humbling. I have never been so grateful to have an education and opportunity to pursue a career of my choosing. I have also never been greeted so warmly and with open arms, or sent away with so many tears as I have in the DR. From little island on the edge of the Atlantic, I had the opportunity to take my location at face value: to learn not to judge the verdant landscape littered with trash, the makeshift shacks stagger alongside affluent homes, and the unfamiliar, at times unappetizing, flavors of the Dominican diet. I learned to adapt. Confined to an island, Dominican life caught me in its exuberant, vibrant culture; a blend of people, nature, and culture brimming with life: island life.


A trip to the West

¨Haitiano or Haitiana¨ was the first question the Dominican police asked my friend Jess when she reported the theft of her cell phone and $1000 pesos($30US) while on vacation at the beach. They automatically assumed a Haitian person was responsible for the crime. The Haitian Dominican experience is often one of great tension that stem from hundreds of years of political instability and fighting between the two countries. Haitians pour into the Dominican Republic looking for job opportunites that don´t exist in Haiti. They often meet harsh discrimination and fight hard labor for menial pay. It is harder for a Haitian to get residency in the DR than it is for a Dominican to get residency in the US, almost impossible. While the woman that stole Jessica´s belongings was in fact a Dominican with a reputation for ripping off tourists, the racism exemplifies the difficulty Haitians have in blending into Dominican society. They have the darkest of the dark skin and most often speak creole, not spanish, but last weekend, I did meet some Haitians who spoke Spanish and had different views on life in the DR.

My friend Sara and I traveled four hours by gua-gua (a large van people pile into) , taxi, bus and motoconcho to the western border the DR shares with Haiti to stay in a town surrounded by rice fields and banana groves. One of the best experiences I´ve had so far was the riding on the back of a motoconcho (motorbike) past the verdant rice fields with desert mountains in the distance. The dusty town of Palo Verde has a population that is roughly 25% Haitian and the rest are lower to middle class Dominicans. Haitians work in the fields alongside Domincians, but their basic relationship is coexistance. Some Dominicans claim Haitians are all machete fighting theives, but others have neighborly relationships. It is easy distinguishing a Dominican concrete or slatboard house from a Haitian hovel of sheet metal and scrap wood. I stayed with a peace corps worker, Molly, who was fluent in Creole and Spanish and was a great help to both Sara and I on our research.

My research project studies nutrition, lifestyle and the relation to chronic disease. Sara is studying the Haitian vs. Dominican experience in the health system and took measurements of weight and height to check for malnutrition. Some Haitian men were quite taken with the scale and weighed themselves one after another to their great amusement. Despite the desert heat and voracious mosquitos our two days in Palo Verde offered us more than just research. I was met with open arms by a band of young Haitian girls and their baby sisters. I was often offered a drink, or even a meal, when I visited a home and I had cherries fresh picked from the abundant cherry trees. I learned more about the peace corps experience from Molly and as much as I respect her and her hard work, I decided that I couldn´t put my life on hold for two years. As she put it, ¨Two years is a long time to be uncomfortable,¨referring to the intense sun and swarms of mosquitos that breed in the rice fields outside her front door.

So we finished our research in Palo Verde and made the long but easy journey back. Just tell a Dominican driver where you want to go and he'll find a way to get you there. I´ve been doing more research in Jarabacoa and more often than not, people are delighted to talk to me. Tomorrow I travel to Santiago and I have one more nutrition program for the students in the CIC program and thier homestay families, but otherwise my time in Jarabacoa is winding down. I´ve had about enough of the heavy Dominican diet and don´t know if I can stomach another meal of mashed plantains and fried salami, but yesterday Frederissa made a heavenly lasagna that was a nice break. Food is often a subject of conversation between students and many people have a list of all the fast food joints they plan on hitting up back in the States. I am looking forward to a nice crisp salad and a cold juicy apple. It´s the simple things in life...


The Campo

After five days at a mountain resort, lounging by the pool, the whole group split up into smaller groups to spend time living the less luxurious lifestyle of the majority of Dominicans. My campo, El Callejon, is a farming community about 15 minutes away from the coast, the polar opposite of the all-inclusive luxury resorts that line the beaches of the DR. I stayed with a couple in their 50’s, who spoke a variety of Dominican Spanish far more accented than I had been accustomed to. While many people experienced a drastic change in living conditions-many people in the campo live in wooden slat houses with corrugated tin roofs-my house was similar to my homestay in Jarabacoa and for five days I settled in. The greenness of the countryside and cool, humid nights reminded me so much of Indiana, which was quite comforting.

My professor, Christine, has lived in the Dominican Republic for 10 years after receiving a doctoral degree from IU, and the people of El Callejon are her surrogate family. Everyone in the community is related in some fashion, and everywhere we went all we had to do was mention the name Christine and we were welcomed with open arms. Life is slow in the campo and we spent a good portion of the time walking up and down the one paved road that cuts through the community and connects it to the rest of the country. We saw fresh cheese being made; milk and salt boiled until thick and then needed until it is the consistency of mozzarella. Freshly made hot cheese was one of the many firsts in the campo. We walked a couple miles up the road to visit a young girl of 16 who is 7 months pregnant. Her husband prepared coconuts for us freshly felled from one of the innumerable coconut trees that forest the island. We were also offered limoncitas, a sour fruit with a large seed surrounded by a slimy layer to suck on and always got stuck between my teeth. Many poorer Dominicans can’t afford much more than rice and beans, so fruit off the trees is an important supplement to their diet.

We visited a beautiful beach in Cabrera and spent an afternoon in Nagua, a large city to the east where I bought supplies for the first nutrition program I planned on doing for my internship. The program was one of the most rewarding parts of my time in the DR so far. Nutrition education, if taught, is a foreign subject to many Dominicans. The program was only about two hours, and we taught 12 kids about the food groups and made crafts, something they don’t often do due to the lack of resources in the schools. They made edible fruit art at the end and were completely ravenous for the pineapple, papaya, and banana. Most of the kids rarely get fruits and vegetables in their diet, so hopefully I’ve planted somewhat of an understanding of the importance of a balanced diet.

Returning to Jarabacoa made me feel how comfortable I’ve grown in this city. I know the streets, how to avoid getting run over by a motoconcho, and where the best ice cream shop is. I live with a great family; they cook and clean for me every day and presented me with a miniature cake and Presidente, the favorite Dominican beer, for my 22nd birthday. It’s cooled off here, the ambient 88 degree days and nights have cooled down with the rain and my Spanish is slowly improving. Research has started. I’m investigating the link between lifestyle and chronic disease and plan on traveling to an area near the Haitian border tomorrow to do some research. I know this program is going to be over before I know it, so I’m just going to enjoy my time as much as I can. I may have to return to finish my internship, but it won’t be with the same group of people. We’ve packed more into these 2 months than I ever thought possible. Take care and I hope the summer is going well…


Blue Moon

This country has my heart. I am up in the North of the country surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside and beaches I have ever seen. We had our midprogram retreat at a hostel set up in the mountains, my version of paradise. We had the whole place to ourselves and I spent most of the day in and around the pool or in my hammock.There was a distant view of the Atlantic Ocean and 360 degrees of Dominican countryside. Blue Moon was built as a yoga retreat with one of the most eclectic styles I have ever seen. We were treated to an authentic Indian dinner sitting on mats underthe cabana and eating off banana leaves. It was one of the most special nights we have had in this country since rarely does the whole group eat together since we all live in different homes. The original plan was to spend three days working on research questions, but plans changes. There was a countrywide transportation stike for public transportation drivers who are angry about the rising gas prices and not getting payed more. It was too dangerous to be out on the roads, so we all had the pleasure of being held captive in one of the most relaxing and beautiful places I have ever stayed.

The day before the stike, I went to Cabarete for the afternoon. Made famous by windfurfing, kiteboarders come from all over the world to take advantage of the beaches consistent winds. I was mesmerized by the way they surf across the water. From a distance, a mass of them look like a flock of birds swooping sown to feed in the water. Ít was a touristy area, but a great little beach town none the less. The town also harbors a network of underground caves, and we spent an afternoon sitting in perfectly still crystal clear pools of water. The cave formations are tragically damaged, but the caves just add one more dimension to the diversity of this country. More to come on my campo homestay, five days living with a family in the country. Take care!


A Different Reality

Life has been falling into a routine. My project on globalization and health is underway. Family life is good. Frederissa and Freidelly are getting used to having an Americana around. We play cards, I taught them go fish, and enjoy meals together. I have made good friends with the other students in my program who live in my barrio, Yerba Buena. We have a mutual bond in that our houses are on the lower end compared to many of the other students, but we are getting used to the cucharachas and logartos, lizards, that frequent our homes. Water and power aren´t always dependable, but I am grateful for an overhead shower. My friend Jessica has to take bucket baths. The culture shock is slowly wearing off, and I am getting accustomed to the sights and sounds of Jarabacoa. Last week, we visited the dump of Santiago and visited some far worse living conditions. I think we were all a little more grateful for our current situations.

In Santiago, a large city of over half a million people about an hour away from Jarabacoa, we visited the city dump, or vertedera, and the community skirting its edge that makes a living foraging for plastic jugs, scrap metal, and other saleable items. We climbed atop the mountain of trash set on the outskirts of the city to survey the open-air untreated trash pile quite distinguishable from an environmentally managed and relatively deliberate landfill characteristic of many found in the United States. In the morning, before we ventured to the dump, we visited the stunningly modern national art museum in Santiago. The museum’s art collection showcases a number of works creating a timeline of the DR’s art history. It portrays the beauty of the island and its people and their struggle for sovereignty and equality. In another way, we witnessed this struggle first hand at the dump.

The community sits in the shadow of the mountain of trash formally known as Santiago’s city dump. The town literally grew out of the dump. Homes are constructed out of found items, everything from discarded signs to rusted bed frames to splintered wooden boards. The people in the town are the poorest of the poor. They take great risks in living so close to such profound pollution. The creek that cuts a small gorge between the enormous heap and the growing town runs black with contamination. Children bear scars and burns, injuries sustain while sifting through the refuse permanently set ablaze. A cloud of putrid smoke hangs over the dump, the result of fires, both natural from combustion and manmade, which burn away the organic material such as paper, food and yard waste exposing the valuable scrap metal within. The air pollution is an important health concern for the local population, but when the winds shift, all of Santiago can smell its smoldering trash.
While scavenging through trash may be a detestable job for most, we met people who make a living off the dump selling plastic, glass and metal to feed their families: a different reality. Unfortunately, many children are forced to work this dangerous job, and children who work collecting refuse often miss out on schooling, setting them so far back that completing a general education becomes impossible. We met a woman who runs an NGO dedicated to combating this form of child labor by supplementing the children’s formal education and teaching the community about the numerous health concerns the dump poses. Lead by an eager young local boy, we hiked to the top of the dump and were greeted by a herd of cattle grazing amongst the trash. In the distance was a group of people sorting through the heap for potentially valuable items. While there are many reasons this lifestyle is hazardous and potentially deadly, they do portray a lesson in resourcefulness. … is a place where the old cliché, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” reigns true. Men, women and children collect scrap metal that may eventually be refined down into useful material, possibly sent as far away as China to construct the massive Three Gorges Dam. These Dominican’s labor to reuse and recycle means one less acre of forest or mountainside will be sacrificed or mined for human endeavors, but however hard many of them work, it is a life perpetuated by trash that few can escape.
Tim Kiefer, an environmentalist who escorted us on our visit to the dump, explained that roughly 90% of Santiago’s trash ends up in the dump; the other 10% lines the city streets. In Jarabacoa, waste flows through the arroyos and ends up in the rivers that carry the human waste downstream. “Everyone lives downstream,” is the motto of a photographic essay he made to portray to the Dominican people that pollution runoff upstream arrives as polluted drinking, bathing, and cooking water downstream. Tim estimates that only 20% of the people in Jarabacoa have a septic system to treat their waste water. The rest: toilet water, sink water, and other runoff drains into the streets as black water and emptying into the arroyos that run through the city as fast flowing, highly polluted streams on their way to the deceptively beautiful river Yaque del Norte. From my perspective, this is a public health and environmental disaster.
Coming to the Dominican Republic I expected a uncomfortable degree of trash, but I didn’t expect it to great me each morning lining the sidewalk outside my home. On my way to class each day, I avoid with a vengeance the refuse and black water constantly flowing through the deep street gutters. Classes are held at an ecological center on the banks of the Rio Yaque called La Posa, and every day we witness people bathing and fishing along its stretch of the river, either unaware or unconcerned about the threat to their health. In what appears to be some perfectly kayakable rapids lies pollution made apparent by the plastic bottles and bags of trash that collect in the eddies just upstream. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, but the amount of neglect is discouraging. I´m surprised how I am getting used to seeing trash everywhere, on the way to being desensitized like most everyone else. Peace...Allyson


The first two weeks

Two weeks have gone by since I arrived in the Dominican Republic, and as expected, time is flying by. There is often mention of Dominican time in reference to daily life in this Caribbean country. The heat slows travel (and thought) and punctuality is not exactly a cultural value. Where life seems simpler in the amount of choices available here, it has become more complicated in adjusting to a new physical environment. I packed light for my trip, but brought with me a rather angry case of poison ivy that has given me the "opportunity" to test the Dominican health care system beyond merely learning about it. Transfering from a hyper-connected culture in the US, my patience is being tested by the occasional apagones, power outages; long walking distance to an internet cafe and expensive calling cards. Oh, and by the way, everything is in spanish...

I first arrived in Santo Domingo, an expanding city of four million people that was recently dubbed to be the most polluted city in the world by human waste factors. It is on the south coast of this nation that reluctantly shares a border with Haiti. Santo Domingo was the first city founded in the Americas by Columbus and is rich in history, but lacks the infrastructure to support the growing population. Currently, it is building a controversial subway system, meant to help improve transportation. Driving in the city is risky business as mortality from motorcycle accidents is high and few people wear helmets. Lanes are nonexistant and salesmen hawk cell phone chargers and covers on every corner. We toured the colonial zone as part of the two days spent in the capital for the program orientation. Then, we made the three hour journey into the heart of the country to Jarabacoa, the home base for the program. It was a nervous journey, because when we arrived, we met our host families.

Jarabacoa, a city of 50,000 people is set in the middle of the country. I am living with a wonderful family and studying with a great group of students from all over the US. There are 29 of us in total, most here to study abroad in the health field and improve their spanish. Coming into this program, my level of spanish was mediocre at best. The first time I met the family I am living with for two month, I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to communicate beyond the simplest of phrases. However, I have improved markedly in just two weeks and can understand most of what people say to me. Luckily, my hermana, or sister, speaks very slowly and clearly for me. I chose this program for the opportunity to improve my spanish and it is definitely inescapable. Every day I learn dozens of new words and am becoming more confident, though sometimes by the end of the day my brain is so drained all I hear is jibberish. Overall, learning spanish excites me the most. In itself, it is a passport being a language a part of the world speaks, increasingly so in the US.

I have to say that the country is not what I expected, the program director, Christine, questioned the class as to what we expected the DR to be like before we arrived, and my immediate response was 'the amazon'. I expected a thick jungle outlined by beaches of sheer perfection. I was right in someways, but I didn't take into account the DR's bustling population of 9 million people. Jarabacoa is a pueblo, a midsized city that is being increasingly inundated grand American made SUVs and choked with pollution by motoconchos, motorbikes, that drive everywhich way, on sidewalks and swerving through traffic. This is an extremely noisy culture and a loud muffler is a sign of pride. Afterall, only in the past twenty years or so have people been well off enough to afford vehicles.

There is much more to come about my time here. I am writing from an internet cafe with my two friends, Katheryn and Jessica, the two gringos in the picture above. Then, I am off to my home in the barrio of Yerba Buena to see my family, a 27 year old woman named Frederissa and her 6 year old daughter, Freidelly. I miss everyone back in the States, but have much to do here in the DR and only a little time to do it. I am just getting started on my research project on globalization and nutrition and will be developing a nutrition program for my internship in public health for my degree at IU. Until then, I'll leave you with a picture of Playa Alicia, a beach near Sosua, a beach town on the north coast where I went to last weekend with friends. Take care...