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Non-Dominican Cooking the DR

This month (and some of June) can be characterized by one word: BOREDOM.Oh and maybe BROKENESS. 

I’m broke and bored. When I am broke and bored I am also unimaginative when it comes to food. I drag myself to the colmado when I cannot stand the hunger any longer and never a moment before. 

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Eggplant and chickpea curry. Probably me at my most inventive. Coconut milk. Red curry paste. Onion. Garlic. Eggplant. Chickpeas. I could do more, but I am too bored and broke to care. 

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On the flip side — this is me at my LEAST inventive. Oh wait, that might actually be when I eat plain tuna from the can, but whatever. Potato fried with garlic and onion. This is actually yummy, but so so BORING.

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Fried egg with kraft single style cheese (5 pesos per envelope) with some hot sauce. Again, I am so fucking imaginative.

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Spaghetti. Colmado tomato sauce. Onion. Garlic. Cumin. Two envelopes of cheese. Again, I’m a genius. 

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50% of the time I actually just survive off of ham and cheese empanadas (Aside: It took me 5 minutes to remember how to spell ham. Its not “jam” damnit). There is a stand on the corner of my block. 25 pesos a pop and 25 pesos for natural juice (chinola - what some call maracuya or passionfruit - and tamarindo are my favs)

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Some times I borrow my landlord’s blender and make smoothies. I only eat healthy when I am trying to show Dominicans how. Because hey, I might eat like a 300 pound man, but at least I know the error of my ways. 

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My neighbor’s daughter was not impressed by Amazing Grass, but my neighbor agreed that it tasted decent enough to drink. Milk, two bananas, ice, and two scoops of Amazing Grass — gotta start the day right! 

I don’t go to sleep to dream

“Tenemos que dar gracias a Dios, por que las cosas siempre pueden ser peor.”

“We have to thank God, because things could always be worse.”

If I had to count how many times in my life I have heard someone utter these words or something similar, I would never finish. On my way back to Jarabacoa from the capital, I imagined all of their faces. Apologetic and ashamed of possibly dreaming of a better life because it might signal ingratitude for the things they have. For the things they have that maybe they weren’t supposed to have.

A mother of two says it to me, after wishing her house had a bathroom and a floor. She complains about the dust and having to use a neighbor’s bathroom every time nature calls. Immediately I see it in her face. The shame of wishing life would be easier because she knows that there are worse conditions. She has lived in worse conditions, and now feels she should be grateful for what little she has. She dares to dream of a paved floor and her own bathroom, but is careful not to dream too big. How much should a person have to be happy? How much is she allowed?

A grandmother in my barrio hopes her grandchild picks a reasonable career. Something certain, something sure. She doesn’t dream that he will grow up to follow whatever big dreams he may have. Just that he’ll be someone useful, that he will make enough to survive. Yes, something reasonable. Maybe a teacher. There are always children to teach, she tells me. He can’t just study anything he wants, she tells me. We don’t have the money to risk that, she tells me. Something certain, something sure.

Boys recently apprehended by immigration after risking their lives to follow their dreams. Never too big. Build a house for his family in Guatemala. Save a little money so his mom no longer has to works in Honduras. Live in a place where he doesn’t fear for his life daily because gang violence has become the norm in El Salvador. Never asking for too much, never asking why they were born into poverty. Being thankful for the little they have. Who apologize when they write thank you letters because they stopped going to school to pick coffee for 4 dollars a day.

Mothers in living on the south side of Chicago. Not dreaming that their children would go to Harvard. Maybe college. Yes, they dream of their high school graduation. “Hopefully she doesn’t get pregnant young like I did.” They dream for their children, but never too much. They try to be realistic. They don’t dream of how they will discover themselves in college and how they will travel the world. They dream that their children come home every day safe from the bullets that plague their neighborhood. Children who are smart and capable, but don’t allow themselves big dreams. They break my heart a little each time.

I, too, am guilty of this. I’ve had so much given to me in my life. I focus on being grateful daily. I’ve had way more than what I was supposed to have. Way more than so many have had. Way more than the people I shared classroom space with had. I feel guilty about my luck. I wish I could give it back some days, trade it in so that someone else can dream. For my boys who are kind and smart and capable of so much more than gangbanging. But they tell me “No te preocupes, Maria, esta es la vida que me toco.” I pray that he gets another chance. I pray for God to take something away from me so that this boy who shows small kindnesses every day that no one else sees can start over. Who talks about wanting to go back to the streets and not back to school, but reads The Tunnel (Ernesto Sabato) and thinks its profound. I tell him that I think he has a good heart and that he is intelligent. He tells me that he knows this, but that his life has already been decided. He thinks its his choice, he doesn’t understand why I pray that he gets more in life than that. He tells me to save my prayers for myself. I tell him that he cannot tell me what I’m allowed to pray about. He agrees with this.

Poverty is much more than poverty of resources, of material objects. My father tells me this after my first few months in the Dominican Republic. It is a poverty of imagination, he says. Of imagining a life other than the one given. Of imagining a world outside of the barrio.

“She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.”

- “My Name” from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

So at the end of the day, I count my blessings. But I allow myself to dream a little more, for all the people I have met in my life who stopped themselves from dreaming. When I want to never have a Chicas Brillantes meeting again because all the girls do is fight with one another, I remind myself that I do it so that they can dream of the women they will become. I remind myself that once upon a time I also was a girl with an attitude who did not think there was a world for her after high school. “Just don’t get pregnant.” But then I allowed myself to dream, and what a difference that made.  

Land Before Time

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Danielle: “Can you imagine if we lived in the Land before Time?”
Me: “That was the first thing I thought about when we got here!”

And then 10 minutes talking about how great of a movie that was and trying to remember the names of all the characters. 

Oh what was this post about again? 

I’m not really sure. But Jarabacoa is lovely. And having people visit you is pretty awesome. I hope all my friends back home reading this are choosing to save up half of their weekly alcohol allowance to pay for their trip to visit me. C’mon? 

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My friend Danielle and I went on a mini-hike to see the Salto de Jimenoa Uno. We wandered through nature, enjoyed the mountain air, and swam in very cold water. 

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Oh, and that mini-hike we went on to get there? Well, it was 100% less fun on the way back when it was all uphill. Guess who cursed the entire way up? Yup, me. 

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That is really all for now, but I’ll leave you with some final words/photos of wisdom. 

The only thing better than wine and friendship is opening said wine with an obnoxiously large corkscrew.

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Cause I’m the only one that’s trying to keep us together

"Nothing left to give cause you always wanna take
If you ain’t using all the talents God provided you with
For the betterment of man, understand you ain’t nothing but a waste”
— Talib Kweli - “State of Grace”

"Why do I stay here?" I dramatically ask one of my Peace Corps friends.

"Because you’re wicked stubborn," he answers. 

This is true, and I probably could make it to the “end” based on just that alone. Plus to be honest, I have been extremely lucky… my life here is not that different from my life in the States. My apartment is of comparable quality, and while no hot water pours from my shower the mere fact that I have running water is a Peace Corps luxury. I get to speak my native language daily (Spanish, in case any one was in doubt), and get to surf the web whenever I want. I own almost no furniture, but truthfully I didn’t own any in the States either. My bank account is always low on funds, but that was also true in the States.

I have a fairly easy Peace Corps life compared to most. And hey, I’m not complaining… there is absolutely nothing romantic about living in true poverty.

So where is the struggle? 

I have a crisis on the daily about the value of my work here. What am I truly contributing? Would I be contributing more elsewhere? Does my community truly need me?

As a dear friend recently told me — “Lopez! You’re putting ME in a mood, stop it!” (Negativity is contagious peeps, so lo siento!) 

When I finish with that crisis, I go on to have a crisis about what being here is doing to my career. I should have had my clinical license already (as many in my grad school cohort now do — congrats to those who are now LCSWs!), but here I am forgetting everything and not learning how the DSM-V works. I could be keeping up with reading (and thanks to an old supervisor I now have an LSW study guide), but its not quite the same. 

So the struggle lies in that I don’t want to make it to the end just to make it. I have nothing to prove to myself. I want to make it to the end because there is meaningful work for me to do. And there are days where I seriously question that. Actually, I probably do so every other day. My community has more resources than most, and at the end of the day I feel like I have very little to offer. 

I’m finally at a point where I am usually pretty happy in my day-to-day life, but as fun as visiting neighbors and drinking coffee is it doesn’t give me a sense of fulfillment at the end of the day.

I’m still not ready to give up without trying a few more ideas, but I’m not going to lie… I miss everything about America. 

Jul 6

Maria is American, but she isn’t a gringa.

- My project partner describing me to people. 

Battle Scars

These past few weeks leading up to my birthday today were filled with thoughts about how much of a failure my 25th year of life has been. Filled with more missteps and tears than any previous year. Filled with more mistakes in lovers than my previous 25 years combined. Filled with poor financial decisions in spite of having the whole world laid out for my taking. Filled with battles with demons I long thought I had overcome. Have I mentioned how much you think while in Peace Corps? So much time to think. So much fucking time.

But here I am today, and fully aware that I needed all of the heartache of 25 to fully appreciate the wonderful blessings still in my life. And to fully learn that every time I fall down God speaks to me.

I thought I had long left the days of staking my entire existence on being a size 4. I thought I had long left the days of allowing men to make me feel small. I though I had long left the days of allowing strangers to determine my self worth. But somehow there I was. Obsessing about the weight I had gained, and then obsessing about the weight I had lost due to illness. Obsessing about comments made by people who did not know me. Obsessing about my imperfect broken English and letting it cast a shadow on what I had accomplished in a short life time. I cannot tell you how many nights I have been so consumed by these thoughts that I am still awake to see the first light of morning.

Why is it so easy to focus on the bad?

Maybe because of instead of going through it, I was going around it. I was avoiding looking at the beast dead in the eye.

Peace Corps has been like most things in my life. I receive way more than I give. In meeting some of the worst people, I have met some of the very best. I have made new lifelong friendships. I learned that my aversion to work with girls has been the fear of seeing myself at their age in their eyes. But thankfully, today I get to enjoy the process of getting past this alongside them. I have learned not to be proud when men tell me I am more like a man than a woman as an attempt to compliment me. Instead I have embraced that yes, in fact, I have feelings and I am no longer avoiding them. As a friend once predicted, the dam one day would break. I’ve stopped being afraid to speak up about the strength of women in a culture that sees us as weaker even though women are tasked with maintaining households and raising children – the most difficult tasks of all. I have learned that donde Dios no puso, no puede haber. I have learned to worry not for the physical, that God always provides. I have also very importantly learned to not deny where I came from and everything that comes with that.

Entonces?

Como siempre, es pa’ lante que vamos. I look forward to what 26 brings me. Probably more platanos, more laughter, more inappropriate humor, and more living. Lets also be real, I will probably make plenty of poor decisions at 26. The fearlessness that has allowed me to venture far from home and far from comfort, also gets me in trouble at times.

Pero, no matter what, I am always okay in the end. ¿Por qué? Porque, to quote La Mala Rodriguez: “A mi me parieron fuerte, me criaron fuerte, Caminé fuerte, siempre hablé fuerte.”   

stay in the streets and notice the gutter rainbows

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Chicas Brillantes - a girl’s empowerment group. As a reward for all of their hard work up to now, I took them to the Salto de Jimenoa. We saw the waterfall, swam in the river, and ate weird sandwiches.

Also, I finally managed to graduate one of my groups! I taught a course titled Escojo Mi Vida (I Choose My Life) designed to teach kids about sexual health with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention. This has been my greatest success so far, and it was so motivating for them to remember to show up to their graduation which was after school let out and TWO WHOLE weeks since we had our last meeting. Lets just say I was a very happy camper. Also 90% of the kids scored higher on their post tests — most making a 10-15% jump from when they started the course. Now THAT makes me a very very happy camper. 

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This brilliant girl went from a 59% on her pre-test to a 90% on her post test - giving her the highest score in the class. 

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Sounds of the DR: Piropos

Piropos are catcalls. I’m sure most adult women (unfortunately) have experienced catcalling in their life time. During our pre-service training we talked about aspects of Dominican culture that might be shocking/uncomfortable. Piropos are on top of the list for a lot of women, but I figured they wouldn’t bother me. Living in largely Latino neighborhoods my entire life, catcalling was just one of those things that happened often enough to be normal.

Ten months of living here, I can say the frequency of catcalling is taken to a whole new level in this country. There are days I avoid going to buy food because I don’t want to hear random men calling out at me.So what do piropos consist of?

For the lazy and unimaginative:

"Rubia! Oye rubia! Ven aca!"

"Hola preciosa! Oye! Oye! Linda!" 

Most often combined by a psssssst noise that men here swear by. Sometimes by a "mmmmh" sound for the more vulgar. 

For those hoping to go to America:

"Mi amor! Mi visa!"

"Necesito una Americana asi para mi visa!" 

For the religious:

"Hay mi amor, preciosa, que Dios te bendiga!" 

For the studious:

"Hello America, how are you?"

"Hey! Hey! Where are you going?" 

So all in all, piropos = least fun part about living in the DR. 

On Dominican Meetings

Peace Corps Volunteers do not just randomly appear in villages that do no appear on maps. Nope. Some random person for some random reason asks for a volunteer to be placed in a community.

There is a long form which (appropriately) includes what they would like the volunteer to accomplish. Volunteers receive a copy of this solicitation upon being assigned to a community or an organization.

I am assigned to a giant Catholic charity that works with marginalized children. According my solicitation form, part of what they hoped a volunteer would help them with was staff training. I was excited about this - an opportunity to actually use my skills and degree and not just follow Peace Corps manuals. 

Our first staff meeting/training which took a lot of rescheduling — in part because I decided to have mental break down right after Semana Santa — went pretty well. I was feeling pretty hopeful about this role.

"We’ll have another one next month," I declared.

"Great! How about June 2?"

"Of course!!"

I show up June 2 and every one had forgotten about this meeting and had just finished a staff meeting and did not want another one.

[Aside: I am at a point in my service where I am pretty easy going about these types of situations.]

"No problem! I’ll come again next week."

"Great! 9:30am" 

"Great!"

I show up next week at 9:15am.

"We have a staff meeting at 9:30!" I announce to the office manager. 

"Okay. I’ll go tell everyone while you set up." 

"Great!"

At 9:20am, I announce to the one employee that runs the computer lab that we will be having our staff meeting in the lab in 10 minutes. 

"Ok. Sure." No movement toward clearing the lab.

Our very competent office manager strolls by and asked if I told the computer lab guy that we would be meeting in the lab. 

"I did… but…" 

With the instant look of understanding she storms in there an announces it herself. She leaves to continue to gather staff.

9:30am. Still no movement, so I take some initiative.

"We are going to have a staff meeting in here, so every one needs to clear out." 

The computer guy finally looks up and echos what I just said. Gee, thanks. 

9:40am. People begin to walk in. Slowly. [Aside: Every one is already at work. This isn’t people arriving late from their homes. Just moving slowly within the confines of our building structure]. 

9:50am. We are missing ONE person. I can see him chatting in the hallway.

"We are waiting for you!" I call out.

"Coming!"

9:55am. Same exact position of our one missing guy. So another guy leaves to use his phone.

Ugh.

10:00am. Finally every one is there.

I start talking. Right away my computer freezes.

Panic sets in. The Dominicans grow restless in less than a minute. Every one pulls out their phones. The computer guy does nothing to help. I am starting to think he hates me. 

10:10am. I magically fix my computer. 

I start. 20 minutes in someone takes a phone call in the middle of it. They don’t leave right away. Just sort stand and talk. Eventually they walk out.

I continue for another 5 minutes. She walks back in. Still on the phone. She pauses for a moment still on the phone while trying to mumble something to someone in the room. 

"Some one died," she announces and leaves the room.

I’m not sure what to do, so I continue. They listen. They sorta participate, but a lot of nodding is occurring, so it feels pretty good. It finally ends. I want to leave and never have a meeting again. They’re too unpredictable. 

As I leave, one of my Deportes para la Vida trainers (DPV is an initiative to teach kids about HIV/AIDS through games) reminds me that we should meet in the afternoon with the other trainers. 

"Sure!" I respond even though I have been encouraging them to show initiative and independence and meet without me as I am NOT a trainer. 

I tell her to call the other trainers and let them know that she wants to meet. 

"Sure! I’ll do that!"

I show up at 2:00pm. 

She greets me asking me if I called the trainers. I think to myself that I had asked her to do it, but arguing wastes time, so I just do it.

They agree to come.

2:30pm. The two missing trainers arrive, and now I lost the one that was originally there.

I begin to look. I find her.

"She’ll be with us in five minutes!" 

Five minutes later she is ready and I somehow managed to lose someone else.

"He went to run an errand." 

I call. 

"Be there in a minute."

He arrives and immediately takes a call. 

Five minutes later he is done with his call and the meeting starts. 

Then the other one gets a call. He answers it. 

"Why does every one answer their phones during meetings?!?!" I think this to myself silently. "I don’t even have to be here!!" 

Whatever. The meeting continues. One person walks out in the middle of it. No explanation. Or maybe I was too busy having an internal monologue about the painful nature of meetings in this country to have heard him. 

The meeting ends, and I think we have accomplished something. 

While the differences between having a staff meeting in the States and having one here sometimes frustrate me, I am also learning to have patience (something which I have long needed to develop). In the end, we do accomplish something. Maybe everything does move at a slower pace here, but maybe that is starting to be okay with me. Maybe. Well, okay, maybe it’ll never be okay with me, but maybe I can agree that it is okay here. That things can be successful in different ways. Maybe. Stay tuned. 

Jun 7

Aqui tu haces falta

"another night slips away
in other words, I should say
there are no words, you should say
there are no words”

 - technically Ben Kweller’s, but I am taking it from Talib Kweli’s sampling in Ms. Hill, and that is  an important distinction

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My entire life has been a preparation to deal with loss. I’ve lost countries, homes, friends, lovers, things, knowledge, words, language. Peace Corps perfected this skill. I have lost comfort, routine, and a million material objects. I lost a home, a job, and a cat. 

Nothing could have prepared me for this. 

I know I haven’t lost you. You are one of the few loves in my life that crosses mountains, oceans, rivers, and languages. But the pain I feel can only be described as a profound sense of loss. 

In my mind this was an eloquent letter to you. I had it perfected in my head as I cried on the bus, but there really are no words that would be sufficient to describe you. To describe what you mean to me.

In the midst of your own storms, you were there for me. You never abandoned me in my darkest hour and never made me feel ashamed in my moments of weakness. You don’t know this, but you are the first person I ever trusted to see that side of me. You are the one that taught me it was okay. You made it okay for me to speak my truth, even if it meant showing that I couldn’t always keep it together. You made it possible for me to trust other people — sometimes in error, but mostly for the best. I can never repay you for that.

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When your dogs jumped on me in joy, Dolores kept saying “They must feel their mother,” and I felt proud to share that with them. I would have gone to the ends of the earth and climbed over a thousand poorly constructed walls on poorly constructed ladders just for that moment. To give you that small comfort in the midst of everything that has happened. 

I write this here publicly, because as a society we enjoy celebrating great people’s great accomplishments. We are inspired by writers, singers, world leaders. This is to let you know that you are just as important to this world. Your kindness has touched me deeply, and will continue to change those around you. This is just one chapter in the amazing things you will go on to do. Things that might not be published in newspapers or magazines, but are ever so valuable to our society. We need you, I need you. Please never forget that. 

My father used to tell me that “aqui tu haces falta,” to let me know that I was needed in my family. That my absence was felt, so I would never doubt it. Well, here… tu haces falta. Please never doubt that.  

should I be saying all of this while the mic is on?
I might as well let it out because one day I might be gone” - Talib Kweli - Ms. Hill