Monday, December 5, 2011

Pico Duarte, Ojo de Agua, Good People, Thank You

11 November, 2011

Second Day of Pico Duarte Trek:
We woke to the sound of the Guacaras River and promply left headed for Bao Valley, with the wet boots of Kevin (Thanks to God we found them after they had disappeared yesterday while crossing the river rapids and miraculously retrieved underneath the river reeds this morning).

We got lost.

After climbing a mountain for an hour and a half, we realized we were off the trail. Down again we went retracing our path.

Upon climbing again, we realized hiking together in a group gave us more energy and more rhythm.

Today was a very long and very great day. We left a bamboo forest to a beautiful river that we had to take off our shoes to ford. After walking 12 kilometers, we arrived to Boa Valley, where we found beautiful pines with green moss and a dense white fog that looked like snow. We bathed in Boa River, in precious, clean, and way too cold water. After smelling like mules, a nice bath felt good.

Yucca, sweet squash, and sauteed salami with onions for Dinner.

Tomorrow another climb.

We are carrying a flower to offer to God in the form of "Pachamama" to receive greatness, good energy, and everything that is holy.

Quote of the day, "If it didn't smell so much I would kiss it." - Dominican Friend Michelle about riding Blaco, the pack mule.

This was one of my favorite days climbing the great Pico Duarte (10,125 ft.). This is trip # 3 to the top of the island, this time accompanying me were five young Dominicans from my community and my best Peace Corps buddy, Kevin and his wife Michelle. It was kind of a sort of goodbye to my community. My buddies Jorge, Christopher, Carlos, Jason, and Jose Antonio are young Dominican men I will forever remember. They were every day at my door step, ready to share work and play together. I wanted to celebrate with an adventure. The 6 day "fiesta" trekking to the peak of the Caribbean's tallest mountain blessed us all. Nature triggers personal reflection. It brings us back to giving gratitude for the very elements of this planet that exist naturally. No human manipulation, no attitudes, no preferred aromas, just the simplicity of forests, hilly terrain, open skies, lots of rocks, and quiet vistas upon which we found real peace.

Ojo de Agua has blessed me with a home and a community for the past 2 plus years. I shall move back to America and reestablish my roots, never to forget the roots I planted on this island nation. My spirit and the spirit of Peace Corps shall forever remain in a country and with a people who I think of as family.
Going to Miss you DR,

Go adventure in nature with people you want to get to know better. It will bring out the realness of who they are.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Camping with Kevin

Every day with Kevin Allison is a good day. This past weekend I was blessed with the opportunity to go camping with “muchachos,” a reality not often realized here in the Dominican Republic. A kind of peace overtook me with the kids that I previously hadn’t experienced in Peace Corps life. We were in our natural element. Unlike any other environment, nature has a way of relaxing the mind and placing one in the present moment. In one of the loudest countries in the world Kevin and I sought to find a natural, tranquil site where the noise of bustling civilization was non-existent. We solicited funds to take kids out into the tropical landscape that is their back yard and go camping.

After 3 days of adventure they hopefully understand their surroundings, the cardinal directions, how to gather firewood, set up a tent, and work in a team to accomplish the art of communal camping. I feel blessed to have arrived at this kind of wilderness adventure with my youth group here in Ojo de Agua. They are impressive kids with a desire to consume all that is new and undiscovered. So with my best Peace Corps buddy we decided we wanted to share the activities that were most fulfilling to us like living as close as possible to the beauty of God’s natural ecosystems. We ate rice and chicken, cooked over open flame, and juiced fresh lemons off of wild trees. We threw rocks and bathed with buckets under the stars, and even constructed a bond fire, told stories, and masterfully roasted marshmallows showing Dominicans how to properly make an American S’more.

These kinds of memories –sleeping under the stars and slipping out of my sleeping bag to mom’s clear call for breakfast of fresh hotcakes fresh off the griddle—are experiences that I’ve guarded in my bank of valuable childhood experiences. They are experience I want every kid in the world to experience. However, sometimes poverty can suffocate the flame of adventure and exploration because families don’t imagine a life outside their own neighborhood. Despite the depressed living situations or lack of basic public services, like water and electricity (that may lead to a certain level of discomfort), ones neighborhood is where these kids feel most at home. Disturbing sounds of muffler less motors, chickens crowing, domestic abuse, loud radios, and tightly packed living quarters all create part of the atmosphere that defines the neighborhood of Ojo de Agua. If such realities are not present then one may feel out of their element.

So I’ve come to understand how the silence of nature can somewhat disturb a Dominicans own sense of home or normalcy. What we feed ourselves daily becomes habit. My teenage host sisters, Lisanna and Lizbet, and friend Genesis all were all welcomed to go camping, not know they would enter an environment very different from what they’ve know as reality. They are superstars in the house, washing dishes, mopping floors, shinning toilets, frying up dinner, baby sitting little brother, etc. However, not being able to bathe in a private shower, sleep atop a mattress, or being told that it would be fun to hike to the top of a mountain just to spend a night far from the reaches of electricity offered a challenge and a healthy dose of complaints. I discovered the weakness of my bright intelligent host sisters. They don’t know what it means to rough it a little in the wilderness for the sake of connecting with the life that is natural and un-manipulated. I would certainly call these girls down to Earth, but they have no experience with “Earth” because the evil hand of machismo has kept them coupted up inside the home repeating the same chores their mothers learned at an early age. Lizbet, 14 years old, told me yesterday was the first time in her life she had touched a mule. It surprised me because we live in a town where almost daily I see young boys galloping past on the asphalt roads with the reigns of their horse in hand. Yet, this girl has never touched such an animal until I invited her out on a trip where she learned to place a saddle on a mule’s back. It was and anomaly I didn’t expect to confront.
Character development comes with exposure to the new. It’s been rewarding introducing kids to the beauty that exists in pure nature.

Wake up in your sleeping bag watching the sun rise and your stomach beckoning a fresh cooked breakfast. It’s you… literally grounded.


Friday, September 30, 2011

Cake & Sandia

It’s drizzling outside after a down pour turned the creek behind my house into a rushing river. These kinds of afternoons in the Peace Corps offer a Volunteer a nice chance to reflect. The tattering of water on the tine roof is like sound from that Bose speakers test sound track; A sweet meditative noise that maintains one inner spirit calm.

My birthday passed this month with a heart felt surprise of cake and a watermelon from my host family. At 26 it’s been a long while since I’ve actually had a party of some sorts. I gave those up when I thought I had graduated from childhood. However, I found a renew joy in the act of celebration since living in Latin America. Dominicans love to make any excuse to throw a Gran Fiesta. Life really should be lived as a celebration. I always remember the voice of my father at different memorial services, “We are gathered together to celebrate this love one life, not mourn their passing. So I will promise to gather together with friends and family for future birthdays to celebrate the fact that they are part of my life and I appreciate that. If the impoverished of the Dominican Republic can buy a cake to share with me, what I can’t I buy a cake and watermelon once a year to share with whoever’s around.

On another note, my host mom left for New York City early this morning to take care of a niece who is undergoing chemotherapathy. She didn’t want to have to leave her country and I certainly didn’t want to see her depart, because I don’t know when I’ll see her again. However, family has to come first in life. We were talking outside the other night over a plate of warmed up rice from lunch and we came to the conclusion that there is only one thing that you cannot change in life… and that is Family! One may be able to change one’s address, move to a warm region in the winter and a cooler region during the summer months, add more tobacco or pepper to their gumbo, sport the latest Michael Jordan high tops, chose to which God they wish to pray, read the news of their choice, and even change their legal name if desired. Nonetheless, your family members will always be your family members. You can run from them, chose not to talk to them, but you shall forever share the same blood and last name. This means they are a part of who you are just as you help to define their identity.

Now when we begin the conversation about development around the world (social, economic, you name it…) I believe our connection and healthy relationships with our families is a #1 priority. If Peace Corps DR is going to leave me with one lesson it is what Amparo Payamps, my host mom, spoke of over a warm plate of rice the other night. “Family matters! Period.” So embrace yours. When someone doesn’t feel so hot or is out of $ they’re going to go searching for that loving family member. And that loving family member should feel obligated to help them simply because they are family. They understand that they have a mutual bond that is stronger than any other relationship. The social ills of the world may find cures when we admit that each and every one of our brother and sisters, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews deserves our sincere care and unconditional love. If all the last names of the world do their part and takes ownership over aiding those to which they are closest, than the sustainability of mankind will be assured. Solutions are always closer than we make them appear to be.

So next time it’s your birthday, invite the family over to cheer and eat together as you were raised.

Sandia or “watermelon” is always a great treat.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Common Ground

We are all fundamentally the same. Neighborhood to neighborhood kids enjoy the same play; The fresh lemon juice dripping from the Dona’s hands; The nurse’s compassionate care through the simple application of a band aid on a light scrape; Sweating in the Caribbean sun; Crying with sadness. If most humans share many of these same sentiments why did I feel the least bit cautious and unsure when I signed up to volunteer at a summer camp that brought me closer to AIDS and Cholera than perhaps I will ever again be in my life. I was entering the common ground of counseling and playing with youth; but youth that carried a disease and hardship that I had learned had killed some 25 million people. How would I shed my fear, ignorance, and preconceptions of these bright, hopeful, joyous, and HIV infected young kids?
Growing up as a kid I believed those dropping starving faces and unpleasant living conditions broadcasted on television were naturally part of a HIV/AIDS lifestyle. I felt that Magic Johnson would never be recognized as good a b-ball player as Michael Jordan because he was “infected.” “Campamento Alegria and Esperanza” in Jarabacoa introduced me to 80 Dominican kids who helped me to break this stigmatization of someone “infected.” These youth did not deserve to be classified as weak, suffering, struggling, helpless, incapable, lost, poor, or any degrading term that does not build self esteem. They all live with the challenge of taking extra care of themselves because their immune systems may not be fully prepared to fight off “un chin de gripe,” the same way a super studded campesino can tolerate rain, dust, mosquitoes, and a jumbo President morning and night.
I tried to make basic comparisons that would help me connect to their reality. Just as a youth of the suburban San Francisco Bay Area I am accustomed to brushing my teeth morning and night; so too have the Orphans of La Romana grown up taking pills twice a day to manage HIV/AIDS. But that’s not a fair comparison to male because they too brush their teeth morning and night. Just as I have lived without seeing my parents for a year, so to do many of these kids go home to a shelter where they have never know a real mom or dad. Neither is this comparison fair because my mom and dad are jetting down to the Caribbean to visit me in a month. So how would I step into the shoes and connect with these kids fighting a courageous fight?
David Castillo was deaf and infected with HIV. This did that stop him from celebrating with the rest of his friendly campers. He depicted a colorful Dominican countryside with markers, danced “Dem-Bow” in front of a crowded dinning room at the talent show, and even read children’s books out loud better than most his peers. Hector was from a violent household and his bed time shenanigans of slipping around to different bunk beds and tickling other camper’s ears kept me up an extra thirty minutes ever night, but during the quite rest hour his puzzle solving ability was unmatched. I wanted to define these kids by their strengths, rather than by their weaknesses. These young kids had the chance to take complete advantage of a freeing summer camp that chose not to focus on the baggage that we as a society often place on someone “HIV Positive.”
The sum of good work (not rest and relaxation at a Barcel√≥ resort or betting on a cock fight) is what builds a Peace Corps Volunteer’s “Close of Service” statement and resume. The reality of living with HIV/AIDS is far closer to a youthful Dominican lifestyle of going to school, eating the “bandera” at 12 noon, and playing baseball in the afternoon, than it is to the ugly depictions on TV advertisements soliciting funding for the poor and dying children of the world. Humanity needs to hold our fellow citizens of the developing world to a higher standard. They are not dying. I saw them in exuberant action at summer camp in the Dominican Republic where the population infected by HIV/AIDS is below 1%. My mission now is to spread this good news to my family and friends in the developed world who may think of themselves as living a vastly different life, when really the common ground is much greater than the uncommon, because we are all fundamentally the same.

Get to know someone you don't think highly of and then go further and find reason to appreciate them,


Monday, July 4, 2011

And so I sit and reflect

Reality sometimes only presents itself in the midst of reflection. That is… you really don’t know what you’ve just experienced until you’ve removed yourself from the current setting and given yourself a moment to think. I come to sit and think on this park bench every Sunday to get a taste of what this Peace Corps lifestyle is truly feeding me. No one is here, the breeze always accompanying me and the distant hillsides blanketed with pine trees and green grass center me in the midst of God’s great nature. It is an hour of my week that is definitely one of those spiritual doses I cherish.
Yesterday I played in the river with 4, fourteen-year old “Tom Fooleries.“ They are the bread and the butter of my work in the neighborhood of Ojo de Agua. Together we dream about who we want to be when we grow up; we construct compost bins from scrap wood and reincarnated nails; we draw pictures of each other with big ears and mo-hawks; we dance off rocks down at the river and tear apart mangos with voracious appetites; we truck rain water in 5 gallon buckets when the clouds open up and spill water upon the tin roofs; and we celebrate cooking large amounts of rice and beans. I can call this reality for us... when we spend time together, but what is the reality when we are alone... when we are individuals on this island.
I think about adolescent Jason sharing a room with his mother and 7 brothers and cousins; His mom usually smoking and watching telenovelas when she isn’t cooking up a pot of spaghetti and yucca for the bottomless stomachs of teenaged boys. Where does Christopher go and what does he contemplate when he has the house to himself from 7:30 in the morning to six at night. When Kelvin is woken up by his grandma at the crack of dawn what is his first chore for the day. When Alex is not spraying out vulgar vocab at his younger brother and sister, what does he imagine he will say next. These four young teens spend a lot of time at my house and we almost always are enjoying ourselves and trying to learn something new in the process, but who are we and what is reality when we must be alone. I sometimes think that God has blessed me with the opportunity to provide these young men with many moments together where they can escape from some of the daily challenges they face in poverty. However, I realize that my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer and friend is not necessarily act as an escape or refuge, but rather a school of thought; an open environment where curiosities can be explored and positive reflection cultivated. I reflect when I run. Into the sunset every evening, or when I come up to this hill and sit on a park bench overlooking the magical formations of the Caribbean’s tallest mountain range. The reality of my experience becomes more clear.

I thought that perhaps when we went down to the river yesterday to swim and eat mangos, the spiritual wonder of God’s nature would offer that moment of reflection away from the noise and sometimes harsh environment of these gentlemen’s homes. However, our secure play time in nature was interrupted by a gun battle between a fleeing narco-trafficer and the local police. This is the reality in which these young men live. Drugs and drug dealers are part of the fabric that exists in their daily life.

Though these realities can appear to be large stains on the fabric we call life, I work to teach kids like Christopher, Jason, Kelvin, and Alex that they have every capability and potential to supersede these stains. They already live carefree and lively being the “Shenanigan” young boys that they are, but I see greater need to reflect so that that free energy can be focused on those positive dreams and future occupations that will carry them to a state of thinking and high self-esteem that out-does the ugliness of poverty. And so I sit and reflect.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Relating to Race

The rain drips and lightly patters the tin roofs all day long. The large tropical leaves hold a permanent glaze as droplets of water peal off their waxy tops. I sit in this paradise that is my back yard and marvel at the shades of vibrant green. Massive vines stretch towards the heavens and golden colored mangos droop from spidery limbs as if they were Christmas ornaments adorning every patio. Sometimes I forget so much is going on in the 10 foot radius from where I sit. Leaves are breathing; trunks are expanding; larva is multiplying; beetles are nibbling; roots are drinking, mangos are ripening, mangos are decomposing. It’s ever changing and forever unique. I happily make these observations from the kiosk behind my house… the place I call home.

Not so far away on the other side of the mountains there is a desert; a dry flat landscape where vibrant greens are only seen the land is generously irrigated. I spent a week this past month in the southern part of the island surrounded by fields of towering sugar cane. I was learning Creole through a special Peace Corps language course that took volunteers to the communities where the Creole speakers in this country live. Batey 9 was home for 5 days; immersed in a community of some of the poorest families in the Dominican Republic. “Poor,” not because they are helpless or weak people. “Poor,” because they live in an intentional sugar cane community that has denied them an identity. The consortiums, or large sugar cane companies, imported cheap labor from Haiti over a century ago when slave labor was an acceptable practice. As servants to the land, the Haitian men lived in barrack like facilities directly next to the large fields of sugar cane. Over the years they had families adapted their cultural upbringing to the new situation. A version of Voodoo was celebrated, they sang their own songs, made instruments from bamboo, cooked their style food, and spoke their own language, Creole.

However, this cultural identity brought from Haiti, rooted in the West African lifestyle, was greatly compromised by the labor intensive job these men were required to perform. They made almost no money hacking down large stocks of sugar cane with their machetes as the cane husk was lit a flame in front of their eyes. They were required to work 12 days straight on 12 hour shifts and then the 13th day was 24 hours straight before they received one day off and repeated the cycle again. They were isolated in a lifestyle that was not just. When the sugar industry fell in the mid 20th century these men and their families were left without an income source. At least during the time of their indentured servitude they were paid a living stipend.

Today, multiple generations later and the current situation in 2011 is much more complex and difficult. These people own no land, not even their house, as these Bateys are still privately owned by the sugar cane companies. They are not recognized as Dominican citizens, and thus cannot legally attend high school or college, they have very few job opportunities, cannot vote, cannot travel outside their community without being harassed at military checkpoints along the highway, nor are they accepted across the Haitian border because they were not born there. These people are marginalized from society. They belong to no nation. The same story could be played out in the farming rich San Joaquin Valley of California where hard working Mexican farm workers have been imported and accepted as cheap labor to maintain the strong agricultural economy. However, you can imagine that conditions and opportunities are magnified to even a greater level of discomfort on the Dominican-Haitian border where the standard of living is much lower.

So no one has ever accused me of being an immigrant lawyer, but I constantly have to peal back the lens of privilege through which I was born into the world and understand the multiple layers to inequality. I went to Batey 9 to learn Creole and walked away with a brief understanding of a history and reality that is not just. The developing world is changing rapidly, just as the trunks of trees and vibrant green leaves in my back yard are expanding with each new drop of rain. I am hopeful that maybe the bright smiles of the children in Batey 9 that I shared every afternoon playing soccer with will one day claim their rights to be active, participating citizens in this world. They deserve an identity just like you and me.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

To the PICO Again!

It was the wash of wind that covered the mountain side pines, flew through my sweaty hair, and spoke peace to my spirit. No motors racing by, turning up dust, blistering the silence. No blaring bodega speakers rattling the tin roofs of the neighborhood houses. It was fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Peter, his cousin Jeremiah, and myself enjoying a 4 day trek to the top of Pico Duarte. I did this same hike a little less than a year ago with my college buddy Dan and his parents. This second time with fewer hikers and more time to reflect and relax, I thoroughly enjoyed a dose of the peace present in God’s natural world.

Even though I live in the “campo” I some times forget about the quiet backyard I have yet to really explore. The hills slowly roll up to the Caribbean’s highest peak, Pico Duarte (10,000 ft). Perhaps it’s not so majestic as maybe the snow capped, saw-toothed Sierra Nevada mountains of home, but it’s a world removed from everything that is loud and in your face about Dominican culture. Here the steams trickle with delight and cold fresh springs. The palm, pine, fruit, and deciduous trees cohabitate on the same slope. The birds chirp freely without fear of being pegged by a pebble from a kids sling shot. The wind whispers secrets that only the deep valleys can comprehend. And the tree feathered horizon gives way to flaming sunrises and sunsets that wake up and put to bed this Caribbean island.

I will do this hike again before I part from the Dominican Republic… perhaps 2 more times. Not only because it is a welcomed challenge, but because it represents the purity that can be found on any piece of land we choose to protect. I work to mitigate trash, create compost bins, protect clean water sources, and play with kids in my site... all because… why?? Well, every time I return to the purity of our world’s protected areas I answer that question. I reunite with nature and my roots. I am grateful for every encounter with beauty in its un-manipulated state and I wish to offer the kids in my community the chance to connect with that not so far away wild. Perhaps the winds and water and trees brushing the top of Pico Duarte will wash upon their spirit and ignite an appreciation for the sacred natural world that can be lost in the “bulla” of a culture so vibrant and all up in your face.

Take a walk, take a hike, and then go on a trek. It’ll reconnect you to where you come from and what you’re part of.
The Roots run deep,