Sunday, December 16, 2007

3-months down, 24 to go...

Me and my fellow newly-minted PCVs / Domincan Republic...
I am now beginning my fourth month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the rural mountains of the DR. Hard to believe that I am three months into this experience and have so much more ahead of me... It is both thrilling and imposing at the same time.

I still remember vividly the day I stepped on the plane to leave Seattle to start this adventure, not really knowing what to expect and not really knowing if I'd have what it takes to make it all the way through. In fact, since September five out of 54 of our original group of new Volunteers have decided to leave the Peace Corps early. That made me stop and think at this, my 3-month anniversary: "Will I really be able to make it?"

Luckily, I've had more good days than bad, and have generally been very pleased with my decision to do this. Especially at the very beginning of training, my spirits were always high - being in a new country, exploring a new city, meeting new friends with similar interests and aspirations, hearing the incredible improvement in my previously rusty Spanish... the list goes on of things that made me feel on top of the world when I first got to the DR.

However, reality sets in after a bit and I had a few close calls and a few bad days where I thought about calling it quits and heading home. An example is from my correspondence (and since then, a lengthy entry I wrote in my journal) a few weeks ago, shortly after swearing-in:

I had a major breakdown the other morning (Saturday) after a pretty vivid Aralen dream in which I kept wondering what the hell I'm doing here in the Peace Corps in the middle of nowhere... [Aralen is an anti-malarial drug we're required to take once a week. It often produces vivid, realistic dreams]. I actually even thought about the consequences of quitting early and how that would work. Not just thinking about it, but working out the logistics in my head... packing my bags, explaining my departure to my host family, getting to the Capital, requesting my passport from the office, explaining to the Country Director why I needed to leave, getting to the airport, etc... I ran off to be alone for a while at the top of a hill near my house and just took in the scenery for a bit, trying to think things through. I tried to call a few of my fellow PCVs to throw me a life line, but no luck, just got voicemail. Sat there for a little while longer, trying to calm down and understand what was going on. Frustrated and unsure of what to do, I walked back to town slowly, all the while wondering how and when this situation would improve.

Luckily, once coming back down the mountain, my new neighbor immediately invited me to play dominoes with him and his family and I instantly felt better. The game, the camaraderie, the feeling that I was being accepted helped out so much. I am hanging in there now, knowing that I´ll feel better once I start working on something and getting to know more people... Have to take it one day at a time and find those little things (like a dominoes game with neighbors) that will keep me going day to day...

So, not wanting to end this post on a downer note, I have come to realize that all through my service I'll have to my best to go day-by-day and take things as they come. Finding the little things that keep me involved, engaged, and in this for the long haul... Much like life anywhere, really!

Un abrazo muy fuerte desde la RD...

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Swiss-Canadian Volunteer

It´s official. I am now a 100% certified Peace Corps Volunteer (please note that it´s "volunteer" with a capital "V")...

November 21st, the day before Thanksgiving, 50 other Peace Corps Trainees and I took the pledge and became full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers in service to the people of the Dominican Republic until 2009.

Here´s the Oath as it´s been said by many Volunteers before...

"I, Tod *******, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps. So help me God."

I know, I know-- it sounds very weighty, right? In fact, I choked up a little when saying it myself. I think a lot of us did. Even after 11 weeks of training and preparation, saying that pledge was quite exciting. It was kind of like saying wedding vows, with that kind of permanence to it -- it represented making the leap into the deep end. Bypassing that last chance to back down off the diving board and to say "no thanks" to two years of hard work and uncertainty. It was quite a moment, but I´m happy to say that I made it and am now in this for the long haul.

Anyway, I am also happy to report that I am at permanent site, making myself at home for the duration of the next two years. I really do love my new community. The people are very happy that I´m there and I love the mountains. It´s kind of like the Washington Cascades in some ways (the rainy, cloudy weather), like the Rockies in Colorado (crumbly, rocky soil and steep climbs), and like the Missouri Ozarks in other ways (bugs and deep jungle forests). Good combination of all three of my previous mountain experiences.

One funny thing about my new home (and my friends Scott and Leslie will love this) - everyone thinks that I am Canadian! And when I tell them I´m NOT Canadian, they assume that I must be Swiss!

I was baffled by these assumption at first, but now understand why most people think this way, after hearing a bit of the history of this particular area of the DR. First, there has been a big Canadian influence here in Ocoa for several years. The priest of the main Catholic Church in Ocoa was Canadian (he died just recently) and was very active in all the communities surrounding the main town. He lived and worked here nearly 40 years, so everyone knew him well. He brought a lot of Canadian relief and construction groups here (kind of like Habitat for Humanity) to build schools and houses for the poor.

As I posted in my last entry, I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer that this community has seen, so when they hear I´m with "Cuerpo de Paz" (Spanish for Peace Corps), they assume it´s a religious organization and therefore associated with the Canadian groups who have been coming here for years. Most don´t believe me when I say that I´m an American (estadounidense). They say I speak Spanish too well for an American, or that I "look Canadian!" I love it!

Anyway, after we clear up the Canadian thing, people then assume that I must be Swiss, or of Swiss descent. This is because I live in a coffee growing region of the DR and there are a lot of Swiss immigrants who moved here decades ago and were (or still are) the main owners of the coffee processing plants in the valley. You see a lot of white or lighter-skinned people in my valley - descendants of the Swiss plantation owners.

I love this actually -- unlike in Mexico where people always assume you´re gringo from the US first, no matter where you may actually be from, it´s actually very refreshing!

So for now, in my community, you can find me easily if you ask for "el canadiense" or "el suiso."

More later, friends...
Un abrazo muy fuerte a todos. -Tod.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Moving right along...

Hello Everyone,

Thanks first to Egan for posting the information about Noel and for letting everyone know that I am safe and sound. I had a tough time getting to an internet place where I was because my area was affected pretty heavily by the storm. Lots of places closed or no transportation available for many days.

In all areas, the DR really did get hammered from that storm. Many of my new Dominican friends will be working hard for many years to recover from that storm. Houses were swept away, and the cost to agriculture, such a big part of the DR economy will be affected for years.

Anyway, as Egan said, I am fine, thank God. I was in an area that saw some flooding, but my house was fine. Two of my fellow volunteers did evacuate their houses in the middle of the night the first day of the storm. We spent many days afterwards helping them clean up and recover furniture. Luckily, no lives were lost in the community where I was at the time of the storm.

Life in Peace Corps is moving right along, despite the interruption of the storm. A few days after Noel, it was back to training and learning about our posts and projects. Then, back to Santo Domingo for a few more in-depth sessions and preparation for our final jump into the interior.

Luckily, I now know where I´ll be stationed for the next 2 years! Peace Corps doesn´t want me to post the name of my exact site for security reasons, but I can tell you that I am in the Province of San Jose de Ocoa, just about in the center of the country, high in the rugged mountains of the Cordillera Central, the DR´s main mountain range.

I am in a little bitty town of about 300 people. No electricity (except for a few houses with solar panels), and no running water. The main modes of transport are: Land Rover (yes, Land Rover!), by donkey, by motorcycle, or by foot. The roads aren´t much more than jeep trails scratched out of the rocks. For those of you who know me well will surely know that I am THRILLED to be out in the sticks like this and wouldn´t trade my new home for all the hot water in the fanciest hotels in Santo Domingo. This is Peace Corps after all!

I have some pictures to post, but alas, am again having trouble with this public PC in the internet café. Will do my best to post some pics next time. Until then... Un fuerte abrazo a todos mis amigos... -Tod.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Tropical Storm Noel

For those of you curious about Tod's status after Tropical Storm Noel blew through the Dominican Republic, he's fine. He was able to contact his mom earlier this week and report back. Thankfully our buddy Tod is doing alright. Lots and lots of rain did fall there, power is still out in many places (as of 11/2/07), but his group seems to be out of danger.

Here's some footage I found on the local news website here in Seattle. It gives you a good idea how severe the flooding was in the Dominican Republic. The "hurricane season" is nearly over and we'll be able to rest much easier.

*AP photo courtesy of CNN

Saturday, October 13, 2007

¿Cómo tú tá?

Hola Amigos,

A rare weekend off from Peace Corps Service Training, so I am taking part of an afternoon to post some much needed information (and bonus photos) on my attention-starved blog for mis queridos amigos back home.

First off... Spiders... there are a lot of them here. I shook this not-so-little guy out of my shoe this morning, then got the chance to snap a picture of him as he scurried up the wall, inches from my bed. These guys are generally shy and stay out of sight as often as they can, but they like shoes because it´s dark and humid in there. So be sure to shake your shoes out before putting them on! I know that I might have just lost a few friends by posting this creepy picture right off the bat, but I have to record my life here, and this was a big deal. He´s still not the granddaddy of critters I´m likely to see: I am awaiting my first run-in with a tarantula... that will be the highlight of my PC critter-cam experience. Stay tuned!

Training to become a Peace Corps volunteer is a lot like returning to college again, and we are very busy. The first three weeks of training were in Santo Domingo, attending a lot of lectures, finding our way around town, and learning a lot about the history, people, politics, and health of this island nation. Spanish classes have been really helpful, as I needed some practice to kick the rust off my neglected language skills. Here´s a photo of my Spanish Class in from of the Panteón Nacional in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo:

I am now in the 4th week of training, which is more hands-on in nature. I finally started working on a practice community health diagnostic, doing one-on-one interviews with five randomly selected housewives (doñas) and mothers of young infants in their homes in and around this community. I ask about infant health, general nutrition, knowledge of breast exams (breast cancer awareness) and PAP smears (cervical cancer is a huge problem in Latin America) . At first, I was afraid that I might find women reluctant to answer such personal questions coming from a tall white gringo from the US, especially in such a conservative culture where men´s and women´s roles and are so clearly defined. However, after explaining who I was, who I was working for, and what I was doing with the information, they were very open and seemed to enjoy being able to participate in something like this.

With the information, we were then to synthesize and present the data and suggest recommendations for further educational projects (like health fairs, women´s health groups, etc.) in our community. Granted this is a small sample, but once I am in my permanent site for the 2-year service period, I will be doing 100 to 150 interviews of this type in order to establish a base-line for community health.

Next week we begin work on exploring the choices made by the community´s teens about sex and general knowledge about STD´s. By the end of our training, we are expected to give an interactive, informational talk with youth in the community about safe sex.

Baseball here is the national religion, and with the World Series this month, all talk and heated discussion is all about who will win this year. The community I´m in is all for Boston (a lot of sons and daughters have left to live in Boston and New York). As many of you know, I am not the biggest sports fan at all, but I have made an effort to learn more about what´s going on in the playoffs and the Series so I can chat it up with the youth and community leaders who always start every conversation with: "Where are you from, and who´s your team?" Luckily, everyone knows Ichiro and the Mariners, and although not a lot agree that the Rockies might make it, they respect that I have to root for them because they are a home team of sorts for me.

I will be in this same rural community for "community-based training" until the middle of November, then its back to Santo Domingo (la capital) where I will be sworn in as a volunteer and given my assignment for the next 2 years. Just in time for Thanksgiving!

¡Hasta la proxima!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bienvenido al campo, Americano!

Hola Amigos! Well, it took me a while, but at long last, here is my blog that I promised you all a month ago. With 2 postings already! (well, the first one really doesn't count, since it was an e-mail I sent back in July).

Anyway, tomorrow marks my one-month anniversary as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. The last 4 weeks have been very busy, as I am in the middle of an 11-week training period before I am officially sworn in as a PC volunteer and sent to my final community for two years of hard work.

The first three weeks of time in country I spent in the capital, Santo Domingo. Training to become a PC Volunteer is serious business - I really felt like I was back in college. There are 51 potential trainees in my "class" and we would have classes all day ranging from Spanish (obviously), DR history and politics, to merengue (yes, I have become a pretty good dancer so far) and dominoes (the national pasttime second only to baseball). We learned these last two activities in order to better integrate into our host culture - nothing like a good game of dominoes with members of a small town to break the ice and start a conversation about health issues.

I am now in a smaller, more rural village about 2 hours by bus outside Santo Domingo. I will be here another 4 weeks for on-site training, then return to SD for a few more days of final preparations, then swearing in as an offical Volunteer.

I am loving the country. People are very friendly, the food is great, and my Spanish has never been better.

I was hoping to post some pictures, but alas, I am unable to at this particular internet cafe. I will try in a few more days so you can see how beautiful this country really is.

More news later, amigos!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Dominican Republic, Here I Come!

Great news to share with you: I have been accepted to serve as a volunteer for the U.S. Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic from mid-September 2007 until mid-November 2009!

As many of you already know, I have been involved in the long process of applying for the Peace Corps since last October, so I was thrilled to finally get an invitation packet in the mail in late July. I accepted the assignment the very same day I received that packet, and am int he final stages of preparation for departure to the Dominican Republic. I am on the plane for orientation on Monday morning!

The Dominican Republic (DR for short) is a small country of about 9 million people in the Caribbean that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. I have been to the DR's capital city, Santo Domingo, once before in 2002. I was coordinating a training conference as part of my job with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) at Fred Hutch. From my brief trip there, I learned that the Dominican people are very friendly, warm, and welcoming of visitors. In fact, I still have friends in the DR (former colleagues from HVTN) who I will be able to see while in-country. Needless to say, I am very thrilled and excited to get started.

Although the specifics of my assignment will not be completely defined until I actually start working on-site, I have been assigned to work in a program called Healthy Families, which focuses on providing support, information, and programs to help at-risk and under-served populations in the DR (in both urban and rural locales). Specifically, it sounds like I will be working with other volunteers and health professionals to assist mothers, infants, and teen-age youth to reduce their risks of infant mortality, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS infection.

At this point, I am not sure where I will be living during my time in the DR, nor do I know the conditions (i.e., electricity, water, communications) in which I will live. The Healthy Families project serves both urban and rural populations, so I may be just as likely to be assigned a post living in the big city of Santo Domingo as in a rural village in the interior of the island. Either way, from what I know of the DR so far, I am sure to find friendly folks, beautiful scenery, and plenty to keep me busy and active.

As opportunity allows, I will try to post updates during my service in the DR, to this, my very first attempt at a blog! I'm a rookie at this technology, so please bear with me as I learn how to use these features, and make the blog interesting and easy to read. Pictures and other fun stuff to come soon.