Thursday, November 25, 2004

We are back on the mainland after a great 5 weeks in the D.R. This being our third visit, Panama City is now both comfortable and familiar. Well, at least familiar. We still haven’t gotten used to the humidity here. It is brutal.

Raegan and I just got a CD of our pictures from Panama and The D.R. made and we’re really excited to share them. Other excitement: we just ate turkey at a café (and washed it down with our first Dr.Pepper in months). It wasn’t quite like home (what is?) but is somehow better than the chicken and stovetop stuffing we were planning on eating. Happy Thanksgiving to all (who celebrate it).

Now I have the challenge of trying to take several weeks in the D.R and try and share them with you without going on and on and on and….

--I can start by saying that in the last 10 months we’ve had some terrific experiences and our time in the mountains of the D.R. rank very well among them. Because of the time that we had, we got to really know the people living around us. But more broadly, we gained an understanding of poor, rural life in Latin America that we couldn’t have gained otherwise. Nearly everyone we met in the mountains (and don’t balk at the term, there are none higher east of the Mississippi) here was very welcoming and generous. All cultural and socio-economic divides were bridged quickly over a cup of coffee or a game of dominoes.

--We did our best to accomplish things for the farm and community and had some results. We helped Julie in the library, finished a composting project and dug a trash hole. A real deep one. We started a canuco (or terrace), a real big one, but didn’t finish. We tried to help the community reforest a hillside near their water source, but the donated trees were down the hill and there needed to be a town meeting, and …. At least we got to walk around the mountains for an afternoon with Palolo, a man who holds the distinction of having the hardest-to-understand Spanish of any man on earth. Oh and he has a real big machete which he uses to emphasize points. But we were pretty used to hanging out with folks with big knives by then. After our walk we were invited into his home for a chat with his family. I smiled and nodded a lot. So did Raegan.

--We didn’t always love the rural life. As Raegan mentioned we had our fair share of rain and it was a drag. At times I was so bored I was praying for the rain to cease to allow me to resume digging enormous terraces or ditches. I started to dislike the pleasing sounds of Bachata music because the local station had a 5 song playlist and (like many stations south of Mexico) put a good 5 minutes of radio personalities screaming at one another between songs. I couldn’t play baseball again. This was especially tough, because I had finally figured out the complicated betting scheme. With the landslides, the guagua trips we did (foolishly) take in the rain provided our only excitement after days of reading, playing cards and dominoes and banging our heads against the wall. Our record was 25 passengers plus the driver (15 in the short flat-bed, me on the roof, and 11 inside). This may sound doable to you until you consider the luggage, tin roofing, 40lb bags of corn and rice, live chickens , etc, etc.

--Another thing that grated on us was the xeno/racism in the D.R. We generally found the Dominicans to be very friendly and hospitable, but unfortunately this doesn’t extend to everyone that lives among them. From our experience it is obvious that the Hatians living and working in the D.R., and there are many, are second-class citizens. This situation is further complicated by race. Most Hatians have near 100% African heritage, whereas Dominicans are more likely to have some Spanish blood. At times there are only subtle differences, but nearly always Hatians are darker and are thus easy to pick out. There is so much history here on this island with two peoples. I could write a book on this subject, but understand that this xeno/racism is sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle, but it is always present and ugly.

--I’m eager to learn more about the long and complicated history of this island when we get back, but we’ve already learned a lot by walking the streets of Santo Domingo. For several days earlier this week we walked by the first cathedral, university, and hospital in the new world. We were astounded at how little time it took these folks to throw up these permanent structures. All of this including a city wall and a big mansion for Christopher Columbus’ family were completed less than 8 years after he ran aground in the new world. (Other historical stuff of interest is Napolean’s grand plan for Samana, Haiti, the first free-black nation, the several overt U.S., Spanish, French, and British interventions, and our covert support of Trujillo who renamed the capital Ciudade Trujillo and organized the massacre of 40,000 Hatians less than 70 years ago. But we didn’t see any of that in Santo Domingo).

--There are nice beaches here. But everyone knows that.

Also, there are more pictures of the DR on Julie's site.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

When you are on a farm in the mountains with no communication to the outside world and not a lot to do other than enjoy the outdoors, life gets pretty slow in the rain. The main events of the day become your three meals and hot chocolate breaks. This is our life week four in the Dominican Alps... rain rain and more rain. Reading, dominoes, cards and hot chocolate. We are learning dominoes the Haitian way from Pablo, which includes a victory lap for winners and a punishment for losers where they have to stand up for the next game while holding their chair, or sack of rocks, or whatever else.

I had to stop going out in the rain after a few days because I only have one change of dry clothes left. I can tell we've been gone a while because my four T shirts are actually getting crusty and my pants very thin. Last night I took my one pair of shoes and stuck them near the fire to dry. Well I got them a little too close so now this pair of shoes that has taken me for the past ten and half months to so many places have a big chunk missing in the back, replaced by a black charred hole. Whoops. Luckily it only burned the plastic back off and not a complete hole, so they will still last me! But que feos son.

We had two big accomplishments this week. The first, we dug a big hole!! Jacob and I spent the two rainless days this week digging a big hole for trash on the farm. It was very romantic slinging dirt among Jacob's jokes about feeling like we were digging a grave. We also re-initiated composting on the farm. So we have officially taken over garbage control, at least until next week.

The second accomplishment, Jacob turned 29 on Thursday! Here, before going on, I need to say another word about gua guas. These trucks fascinate me. The amazing transportation system of the mountains. Pick up trucks packed with as many as possible. It is cheaper to ride in the back so we usually pick that spot, as does almost everyone else. The back piled with goods and then people hanging onto the top, sides, back, where ever, while the truck weaves up the mountain road. This road is full of ditches and avalanche spots that the gua guas expertly dodge by driving on the wrong side.

Today, due to the rain, there was a huge avalanche. In one spot the road was covered by huge boulders and the guas guas couldn't pass. The road is blocked. So we stopped at one end and scampered across the rocks holding our breath with everybody else to wait for a gua gua on the other side. After riding the second gua gua for a few minutes the rumor spread that the truck had no brakes. I wondered if there was a discount for this, but alas, no. Luckily, half way down we found out the rumor wasn't true when Jacob's new prized Aguilas baseball cap blew off and the driver stopped so he could retrieve it.

Thursday Jacob spent part of his birthday in the back of a gua gua in the pouring rain. We went down to town to buy groceries to make a dinner and as soon as we left the house it began to rain. On our way back up it was pouring. We wedged ourselves in the back of the gua gua with two other people and covered ourselves with a tarp against the rain. I had to hold the tarp down the keep it from whipping everyone in the face so Jacob used his arm as a seatbelt to keep me in as we went around curves. Meanwhile a half dead rooster with his legs tied slid back and forth from edge to edge across our feet. An unforgettable birthday memory.

For Jacob's birthday we made a big dinner, giving Lupe the cook a night off. We invited all the characters from the farm who are usually around. Julie, the other American volunteer, Lupe, Filomeno who manages the farm and Piti and Pablo, two Haitians who live and work on the farm. We made tons of food and played lots of dominoes. After dinner Piti and Filomeno who are great musicians played everyones favorite song in turns. If I think back to the most memorable times we've had this year, it is times like these. Relaxing and enjoying an evening or day with people we have met along the way. Experiencing that core human connection in the midst of such different backgrounds. Laughing a lot and appreciating the endless kindness we have encountered along the way.

Being on the farm has allowed us to do a lot of reflecting about the past year. We have had the opportunity to see first hand the complications of an international development project. We have become a lot more familiar with rural life in a poor country by living in this community rather than just seeing them pass by out of a bus window. In this email I haven't shared any of our reflections regarding any of this because I believe Jacob is going to write something about it soon. If you want to more about the farm, Alta Gracia, where we have spent the past four weeks check out Julie's blogsite. She is the long term volunteer who runs the farm library and her blog is very informative about the actual mechanics of Alta Gracia.

Lastly, Jacob and I recieved some news on Thursday. We had arranged to extend our sublet to April 1 but it seems we need to be back, paying rent by Feb. 1 or lose our house. So Bay Area folks we will be back in February or sooner! We are feeling really nervous about ending this fabulous run but miss home, friends and family and can't wait to see you.

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