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One year later

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“I hadn’t understood how days could be both long and short at the same time: long to live through, maybe, but so drawn out that they ended up flowing into one another. They lost their names. Only the words “yesterday” and “tomorrow” still had any meaning for me.”

- Albert Camus, The Stranger.

New trainees will be arriving shortly in the Dominican Republic, making it almost a year since my training group said good-bye to America, and hello to the unknown.

I came to this country with the very dumb idea that serving in the Peace Corps wouldn’t dramatically change me. Sure, we all grow and change with the passage of time, but I thought myself to be pretty set in my ways and was not on any mission to “find myself.”

Well here we are a year later. The fastest and slowest year of my life.

So, am I different?

Of course. I have learned to live in a different culture, and in the course of doing so I have learned to be more open and easy going. I have learned to live with less materially. But I have also learned to live with less emotionally and spiritually. The latter was much harder to come to.

In the Dominican Republic I pay about $127 USD for an apartment in a tourist town in the mountains. I spent considerably more money than that on “basic” make-up (think foundation, concealer, powder and mascara). I can’t even begin to calculate what I spent on the “extras” without making myself sick. Now I live without all of that.

For the last week I have been eating very little other than ramen noodles, rice, eggs, and plantains. In the States I would have my groceries delivered after using my break at work to order them online. I would have a variety of fruits, veggies, fancy snacks, and things I cannot even remember why I needed. I could go weeks without repeating a meal. Now I eat simply to quiet the needs of my body for nourishment.

I’ve let go of the idea of having control after realizing how much of a control-freak I must have been in my life before this one without being aware of it. I have cried over the simplest of things and realized how whenever I cried in the States there was always someone there to give me a hug and talk me through it (Thanks for all those hugs, guys!). I cried anyways and got myself through it. At times I have cried, and my fellow volunteers have gotten me through it (Thanks for listening to me talk in circles for hours, guys!)

I have made new friends and experienced generosity unlike any I had experienced before. I have become more generous in the process out of shame. Yes, I gave before, but I hadn’t truly seen giving until I saw someone who lived in a wooden shack wedged in the space between two houses smaller than my closet back home spend their money to buy me, their guest, a soda.

I have had more free time than I know what to do with and less internet than needed to fill part of that free time with all the new TV shows out there. I nap, read, paint, think, listen to the same Lupe Fiasco album on repeat for hours.

I have felt happy and at home here, which has warded off the daily temptation to return to my actual home. A home that I can see so clearly when I try to go to bed at night. No longer the pastelitos and cortaditos of my youth, but now the tamale carts and fruit stands on corners. A day has not gone by where I haven’t thought about it and the people there.

But as I said, here we are a year later. Ready, I think, for another year on this island. Ready to accomplish more than I did in the last year, but less than what I originally set out to accomplish. Ready to learn to be okay with that. Ready to be one month, one day, one hour closer to returning to my home. But while I wait, ready for a ton of coffee drinking, plantain eating, beach lounging, and waterfall chasing.

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Aug 1

Jolene

He talks about you in his sleep
There’s nothing I can do to keep
From crying when he calls your name, Jolene

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I gave y’all enough picture posts that I think I earned myself a sad post. And I have some more lined up of my new Chicas group and my camping experience with 80 kids from my organization. But on to the point…

Once again, I have to say goodbye to one of my best friends in-country. A little bit ago I wrote about my dear friend Rinnie leaving, which broke my heart into tiny little pieces and some went with her back to America. Now another piece of my heart se va pal norte. And I get you, its where we all seek to go… someday.

I have been searching my brain for the right mood for this post. The right song, the write book, the right anything. But its hard to capture the oddity that is our friendship. For Rinnie it was easy – the hook to Talib Kweli’s Ms. Hill had been stuck in my head and on repeat on my iTunes ever since I sensed in a dream she was leaving. Since I woke up from my sleep with the knowledge of what was coming. But even though I’ve had just about the same amount of warning, I have been at a loss.

Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

Until you finally called and told me this would be the last week. When I hung up the phone, it hit me all at once. The sadness of it all.  Now I have been listening to the White Stripes’ cover of Jolene because it captures my mood. This is a weird choice, sure. But listen to it and the mood first. And then imagine Jolene is America. Beautiful, seductive, attracts men and women from far and wide. Makes you forget your worries, your pain, your traumas. She promises everything. All of your dreams. And us left here in the Dominican Republic are Dollie Parton (or Jack White, I don’t know which captures this metaphor best) – begging America not to take another one of our loves. Cause we have so little. We’re the ugly girl. The girl that doesn’t help your community members show up to meetings. That doesn’t take away the smell of the burning trash. She doesn’t sweep the dust that piles into your home quicker than you can sweep it out. She doesn’t help manage the children who fight and don’t listen in spite of your tireless efforts. And when you come home tired from all of this, she doesn’t even have dinner waiting. But Dollie love you. But also Dollie knows whats up. She doesn’t doubt Jolene’s superiority. She probably dreams of Jolene, too. I didn’t pick the original to this song, for the same reason I didn’t credit the original source of Kweli’s sample. It isn’t the words, its more than words. The words are irrelevant, mostly. Maybe some will get it.

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene

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I can’t judge any one’s decision to early terminate their Peace Corps service. In the simplest terms, America is amazing (its why my own family chose to immigrate about 17 years ago), and Peace Corps is hard. When I announced my choice to do this, many of my immigrant friends looked at me with confusion and slowly (as if I had hit my head and lost cognitive function) reminded me that what I was doing was the opposite of what every one was trying to do. “You know we left so we could have better lives? You have a good job and a Master’s degree.” I chose Dollie Parton, but I dream of Jolene on a nightly basis.

Of course, this explanation doesn’t really capture the nuances of service and in choosing to end that service, but I feel like any one not currently serving in the Peace Corps wouldn’t understand anyway. Plus every person’s experience is so different. There are blogs out there written by people who made that decision, that might give you insight if you’re in search for that. But I won’t, so I’ll leave it at that.

But as much as I understand the want to go home, and how much I support your decision, I still kinda hate your face. But its hard to hate someone as nice as you, Ryan. We’ve come a long way, and I would have never guessed that we’d become such good friends. Probably because I have zero idea how to interact with genuinely sweet people.

But I knew you were a keeper when you suggested I get a pet frog to solve my grasshopper problem. And then acted surprised as to why I still hadn’t gotten one when I complained for the second time how I had a grasshopper invasion. Or maybe when you told me you thought I was a nice person, which NO ONE ever says. Not even little Maria. Maybe you’re rubbing off on me, but I have a reputation to maintain so maybe its for the best that you go back to America and get a head start on our future rib business. So even though you didn’t let me do that charla with you during Superman camp, and then told Rinnie no one wanted to do it with you even though I begged (BEGGED!), I forgive you. Even though you said I was intimidating upon first meeting me, I forgive you.

You are truly one of the most genuine people I have met, and your honesty and vulnerability as a person make you someone I admire and that I will miss dearly. You ability to not take yourself too seriously is something I wish would rub off on me as well. I will never return any of the things I have “borrowed” from you as a price for you leaving us, but instead post random pictures of me wearing your North Face fleece, sunglasses, and drinking from your water bottle.

I know I make these things sound like these folk are dying, but you just don’t know how important your in-country support network is. These at the only people who understand why all of the sudden you make zero sense – you complain about being unproductive, but sometimes pray for rain so no one comes to your meetings.

Anyhow… this is getting long. Just know, I love you. I am obsessive about my friendships so you’re stuck with me for LIFE. And I’m dead serious when I say we’re starting a rib business… food truck style. I’ll work on recipes in my free time along with focusing on my painting career which little Maria is now invested in after she mad hated on me for buying paint.

Did I say it already? I fucking love you!

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(Oh HEY! There is my water bottle! Thanks again buddy!)

One more cup of coffee

Life here revolves around coffee. 
Walk into any one’s house and the first question is “Do you drink coffee?”

All they are checking for is that you don’t have some medical problem that prevents you from consuming caffeine. If you are a healthy person, you are about the receive some sugary coffee.

Some of my friends know me well enough to know I don’t like sugar in my coffee. These are the moments where I feel most integrated. When I go to my counterpart’s house, her mom emerges minutes later (no questions asked) with a giant cup of bitter coffee. Once one of her sons tried to stop her when she made a separate greca for me and she yelled back: “Maria will drink the whole greca if you let her! As long as there isn’t sugar in it!” I love it when people KNOW me. 

I won’t be redundant and explain to you how Dominicans make coffee. Instead I will link you to another volunteer’s (Grayson) post on this matter: Dominican Coffee 101. It has everything you need to know. 

This is how every one here makes coffee. Cubans make it the same way, but get fancy with the sugar in order to make it foam (google how to make Cuban coffee if you’re bored). I usually make coffee like this as well, but some days it makes my tummy hurt, so I have improvised.

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To begin with I only purchase Monte Alto coffee which is grown and processed here in Jarabacoa. This isn’t the best expresso coffee because it isn’t finely ground, so sometimes I stick to my old favorite Bustelo for when I use my greca.

However, I have recently began using this tea steeper using the same logic as a french press. It has a chamber that holds the coffee or tea until its done steeping, and a button to release it into the second compartment. No bitterness, and an excellent cup of coffee. WINNING. 

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Or when I’m feeling creative I make Vietnamese Iced Coffee (mas o menos). Condensed milk and expresso. Not an every day drink, for sure, especially because I don’t like sugar in my coffee, but once in awhile a little variety is good for staying sane.

This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t make a reference to a song or a book. So, I leave you with JaRule, who I feel captures my relationship with coffee.

Where would I be without my baby
The thought alone might break me
And I don’t wanna go crazy
But every thug needs a lady

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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