Planning an outing never goes quite according to the plan, especially in a foreign country. As a strict planner, this past weekend was a true test of my flexibility, spontaneity, and sense of adventure. We didn’t realize exactly how long public transportation takes to get to the beach. Note to self: leave before 8am to get to the beach at a decent time. We had to take a guagua to the bus station then took a 2.5 hour bus ride to Sosua then from Sosua we took a taxi to Cabarete Beach. We finally got to the beach at around 3. Cabarete is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. The soft, fine sand squishes between your toes, the waves race onto the land crashing with a magnificent sound, and the palm trees bend and shake with the wind. One section of Cabarete is called Kite Beach and is home to the best kite surfing in the Carribean. Hundreds of colorful kites fill the sky overhead as their owners skim over the wavy water below. We spent hours relaxing and swimming. We befriended a three-year-old girl who loved the attention of us older kids. The little girl recruited another group of girls about our age who are teaching English in Santiago for a year. The girls were super friendly and gave us the inside scoop about the fun places around Cabarete. After the sunset, we sat down for happy hour and dinner on the beach. It was an incredible moment to eat dinner and watch the sun sink below the ocean surface while burying my feet in the soft sand. The nightlife in Cabarete is just as vibrant as life when the sun’s up. We met up with our teacher friends and bar hopped up and down the beach until we arrived at our final stop for the night: a two level dance club called Los Ojos. The top floor played American club music and the bottom floor played Bachata and Merengue. With our new found love of Dominican music we stayed on the bottom floor. We had the best time dancing with the Dominicans who were so eager to teach “Los Americanos” the native dances. I love that from an early age Dominicans learn to dance the Bachata and Merengue so that by the time they are young adults everyone is a master of the dance floor. I wish dancing was a larger part of our American culture and not our type of dancing which doesn’t take any skill, but traditional and complex dancing.
Because we had gotten there so late and wouldn’t be able to stay very long before the last bus left to go back to Santiago, we decided to stay the night in the cheapest hotel we could find. The hotel website said it was located right on the beach. This turned out to be a very loose use of the word “on”. We ended up walking through the gated yards of other hotels, through alleyways, and several miles down the main road before we finally came across the sign “Kite Dreem Hotel” (still convinced they meant to spell “dream” wrong). The hotel’s bubbly Jamaican owner led us to our rooms. Staying at the Kite Dreem Hotel was definitely an experience, but not quite a dream. The floor was covered with a thin layer of dirt, the rooms could have used a few hours worth of fix ups, only one of the rooms had toilet paper, and in the corners resided my worst nightmare…cockroaches. We defintely got what we paid for. The condition of the rooms made me so grateful for the quality of the rooms at ILAC. After eating breakfast overlooking the ocean, we began our trek home after our exhilarating trip to Cabarete.
English, Spanish, now Creole? For service, I am teaching English at a Haitian school. Haitian immigrants generally don’t have their birth certificates and since a birth certificate is required to attend school in the Dominican Republic these children normally don’t receive an education. A pastor and his wife have set up a makeshift school inside of a church where about 115 children ages 3 to 15 come daily for school. I thought one language barrier was difficult until I was faced with two. The children speak only a little bit of Spanish and because my Spanish is no where near fluent the communication is slow and difficult. Even the teachers at the school speak very little Spanish. My partner, Clara, and I have been working on teaching the parts of the body through songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and “The Hokey Pokey”. We have them repeat words over and over again. One example of a fun communication gap happened during the hokey pokey. Clara was having them repeat phrases like “right leg in” and “left arm out”, between two phrases Clara said “so” and a resounding “SO!” echoed. Already I feel my Spanish improving because I have to think of different ways to say what I mean when the first couple ways don’t work. The kids are eager to learn and really seem to enjoy our presence. With my study abroad community we are talking about ministry of presence, which is serving people just by being with them. This is especially applicable to my service site because a lot of the time I have to interact in the absence of words. Because of the island’s history with colonization and slavery the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic value their Caucasian, European blood much more than their African slave blood. People with darker skin are by default lower class. This phenomenon is called “el negro detrás la oreja” or “the black behind the ear” because the people of Hispanola try to hide their African heritage. Because of this discrimination, Haitians, who are much darker than most Dominicans, are considered lower class and treated as such. One of my jobs at the school is just to show the kids respect and love to build up their self worth.
A major accomplishment of this week has been navigating public transportation without help. To get to my service site, we first have to take a guagua, which includes getting the attention of the man hanging off the side of the vehicle to tell him we need to get off. Then, we have to walk down a few streets and catch a T or CJ car, which will take us the rest of the way to the school. It may sound pretty straight forward, but communicating directions in Spanish is quite difficult. On the first day of service, some of the money for the trip back to ILAC fell out of Clara’s pocket. We only had enough to take either the car or the guagua. We tried to walk one leg of the trip, but it was much farther than it seemed, so we had to call our student life director to come meet us at the guagau. First transportation obstacle, overcome!
A few other adventures from the past few days include venturing out on a scavenger hunt around Santiago. As we made our way to the monument we made two pit stops: one at Bon for brownie ice cream and the other at McDonalds. The monument’s marble exterior disguises the immense history lying inside. The monument has changed names and purposes multiple times from honoring the dictator Rafael Trujillo to now honoring those who fought in the war for Dominican independence. Sunday night we decided we needed a little bit of home so we went to La Luna a sports bar to watch the Patriots vs Colts game. After the game, we went to a colmado, a little store, and played dominos with the locals. We also went to a dance club called Dubai for ladies night and to celebrate one of the girl’s birthday. The music was very fun to dance to! One of the girls knocked a 3,600RD (about $80) bottle of alcohol off of a table. Luckily it was filled with water as a decoration so she didn’t have to pay for it. In other news, I am going to have a very inflated ego when I return to the United States because everywhere we go we have guys yelling “Que bonita!” and “Do you need a boyfriend?”. As a group of 11 American girls, most with blond hair and light eyes, we get a lot of attention when we go out. Of course, most of them are only looking for a green card, but hey a little ego boost never hurt anyone!
As orientation week wrapped up adventures in the city began! Friday night we went out to our first dinner in the city. I ordered my first legal drink, a strawberry margarita! It was delicious! After dinner, we walked to a dancing bar. Our leaders sent us to an old person bar! There wasn’t anyone under 30 in whole bar. Because the bartender stuck “los gringos” in the back corner we didn’t get many offers to dance for most of the night, we did however get lots of stares. Eventually, we saw our friend Jota Jota (our nickname for JJ) who works at the ILAC center. He recruited some of his friends to ask us to dance. They taught us the merengue, it’s a fairly easy dance because the beat of the music makes it easy to find a rhythm. My partners were so fun they helped me learn and did neat spins and moves. In the DR, the men ask the women to dance, lead them to the dance floor, then after the song is over lead them back to their seat. It is very gentlemanly and formal. Apparently if you dance with a guy more than a couple of dances it means you are interested in him and if you are interested he will not leave you alone. Our DR “mom” said last semester she called to schedule a tour and the man she talked with still calls and texts her. DR men are very forward, catcalls and “Que bonita!” resound everywhere we go.
Today we had a much anticipated beach day! We traveled two hours North to Sosua Beach. It is mainly a locals’ beach located in between resorts. The beach was pure paradise with turquoise blue water, soft sand, and palm trees hanging over the sand. The second we secured a spot on the sand, I dove into the ocean. The water was refreshing, but still warm enough. After playing in the waves and walking on the beach, we took a pina colada break. The pina colada came in a full pineapple with pineapple chunks in the drink, mmmmm! A local guy pulled us on a banana boat which was a long tube that sat six. We went tubing around the cove and the resorts. The guy ended up trying to take advantage of us Americans by taking way too much money when 11 of us tried to pay him at once. Our program director, Margarita, started yelling at him in the fastest spanish I have ever heard! After ten minutes of chewing him out, he gave us back our money. A couple of us walked along the shops on the beach. Clara and I got free anklets from one vendor, which Margarita said was very unusual. Every vendor attempts to almost push you into their store saying things like “Look for just one minute!” or “99% off!”. I learned a valuable lesson, never tell them that you will come back later and definitely don’t promise them you will! They will follow you down the beach until you bluntly say “Go away!”. The bus ride back was filled with sand and snores after our beautiful beach adventure.
Taking off from the JFK airport in New York the plane flew over a flood of lights organized neatly into the lines of streets and neighborhoods. Three hours later the plane touched down in a country that from the sky looked very dark with small clusters of lights spread unevenly across the land. Although the Dominican Republic appears dark from the sky, on the ground community and love pierce through and illuminate the darkness of poverty shrouding the country. The sun has set on my fourth day abroad. The transition from Colorado to the DR has been more difficult than I thought it would be. Thinking about spending four months away from everything I know and everyone I love turns my stomach into a knot. Everything and everyone I come across are new and foreign. I didn’t know how many things I had been taking for granted in the United States. The ILAC center where I am staying has many luxuries that the surrounding city doesn’t have like consistent electricity and flushing toilets. ILAC is beautiful! Everything is green and tropical. The days begins with fog which slowly lifts to reveal a deep blue sky. Most of the buildings use skylights instead of electric lights. People around the city ride on old motorcycles zipping between the cars. There are barely any stop signs or lights, horns are the main form of communication. Riding in a guagua was my first experience with public transportation. A guagua is basically a minivan without one of the side doors. A man hangs onto the edge and stuffs as many people as possible into the tiny inside with people sit on laps and intertwine legs. We fit at least 30 people in a 8 passenger van. It costs only 65 cents to ride in a guagua no matter how far you travel. In typical Greer/Thelen fashion I have already found my favorite ice cream place called Bon. Bon is everywhere in the DR like Dairy Queen is in the US. Tonight we had Ernesto, one of the Dominicans that work at ILAC, order us Bon for delivery. Es muy delicioso! Tonight we played volleyball with the Dominican workers for the first time. It was very fun! The Dominicans are extremely competitive and will move you to a new position if they don’t like how you are playing. We have started to see the desparity in socioeconomic status and learn about the causes. I now understand the enormous barrier that language poses between people. My conversations with the Dominicans stay surface level, limited by my low understanding of Spanish. There is so much to learn about and see in this incredibly diverse country, this will be the adventure of my life!