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.