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El Cuerpo de Paz en La Republica Domnicana

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Thursday, May 24th, 2007
11:38 am - Movin´ On Up
So, I know that last time I wrote in my blog, I was still tormented over whether or not I would stay in my old site. Well, I took the assault, the three murders that happened in front of the house that I was supposed to move into, and the tear gas at school—not to mention the fact that I couldn’t sleep and that someone tried to break into my house one night—as signs that I should move on if I wanted to be happy for my second year of Peace Corps. As my Peace Corps friends said to me, “It doesn’t matter where they put you. Anywhere you go here, you are gonna find people that need help.”

I grappled with the mixed emotions for about a month, but I finally came to a decision. I felt bad leaving my site, thinking to myself that I was just giving up and putting myself ahead of the kids I left behind. But as I trudged into work everyday with my eyelids heavy from no sleep, and dreaded seeing the kids who had attacked me (and didn’t even care) while I went to work or Chuch, and felt unsafe being outside at night, I realized that I couldn’t live that way for another year. I’m a volunteer, after all. And you can’t help other people if you’re not taking care of yourself, right?

So, when I came back from a short trip I had to the States before Easter, I approached by APCD and the Safety and Security Director and told them that I wanted a site change. Flash forward to a month later (after avoiding my site as much as I could), and I find myself in San Jose de Ocoa. It’s a small city, nestled in the mountains in the southern region of the island. (So I’m still in the DIRTY SOUTH!) We actually get rain pretty often, which is quite a change from the desert I used to call home. And it’s not soooooo ridiculously hot here, at least not yet. But everyone says it will get to be the usual scorching temperatures by July and August.

I plan to move into a place of my own, but the school that I am working at arranged for me to live with a Dona first. Her name is Cruz, and she is a super-spunky partially-senile little old thing. When I get up at around 8 every morning (I have been so relaxed about getting up now that I am not actually teaching classes, but just training teachers), and Cruz we be bouncing around with coffee in her hand, telling me she has been to every side of town and back when I am just waking up. She’s a go-getter.

For a while I was quite frustrated with her. When I first moved in, I had more stuff than would fit into my one room (since I was moving from a house, not just a room), and she said I could store my extra things in a room that she uses for storage. Later that night, as I was settling in, she casually mentioned that I would need to pay $500 more pesos since I was using an extra room. Had she mentioned this from the start, I would have just dealt with a mountain of crud in my room, but she didn’t. And the Director of the school I am now working at was in her living room at the time, and he insisted that this was quite reasonable. I was so frustrated because it was the high prices around here that kept me from moving into a place of my own right off the bat. And I assumed that this ridiculously high price at least included food, but she was only cooking for me once every two days, or so. Other times, I was left to fend for myself. Now, you all know that I love to cook, but not if I am paying out the ear to have someone cook for me!

But in the long run, it has been a fairly good exchange. She has started cooking for me since my birthday. (I think she really liked my friends and that somehow broke down some walls.) She has introduced me to her family members, so there are more familiar faces around town. She let’s me know where things are and how much things cost so that I don’t get ripped off. And when I go to the States in 7 days (7 days!!!!), I can leave my belongings here locked in my two rooms, knowing that they will be well-cared for.

Um, did I mention that I am going to be in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in seven days?!?!? Yeah, I am really freakin’ excited about that!!!

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Thursday, March 15th, 2007
12:12 pm - “It’s Quite Pungent; It Stings the Nostrils”
So, I feel like I am among the elite of Peace Corps. Before I was even officially sworn in as a volunteer, I had passed the parasite initiation. I was hosting my own little amoebic pet in my bowels and had experienced the “I-have-been-to-the-bathroom-sixteen-times-today” phenomena. I even earned my membership to the Shart Club. But now I can enter a club that I think a select few members of the Peace Corps have gained admission to: I got tear-gassed today.

It started out as a typical day. School started at 8 a.m. My students were the normal mixture of semi-attentive, “necio” (rambunctious and bothersome), but still learning. At about 9 o’clock we started smelling something burning. At first I assumed that it was trash, but as the smoke because more strong and the wind carried more towards the school, we realized that we smelled burning tires.

Now, in the United States, I am pretty sure it’s illegal to burn tires because of the noxious fumes and the resulting pollution. Here, it’s only illegal during the day because that’s when people have their laundry hanging outside to dry. At night people are free to burn anything they want.

Here, burning tires are also a telltale sign of a “huelga,” or strike.

And indeed, it was.

My town has not received water since February. It is now March 15. So, clearly there are people who have not bathed in over a week, who have not been able to clean their clothes or cook because of the lack of water. And in our town we don’t have a pump or a river to go to in order to get water. We have a dirty canal filled with filthy, fecefied water that goes out to surrounding farmland. But nobody uses that water for anything except to water crops because it is far too dirty and parasite ridden. Even if you boiled it, you would have to filter it as well, and we don’t have filters here.

The normal manner in which people obtain water is through an underground water main from the next town over. Typically, two or three times a week, some engineer-type-person from turns on the pumps, which then pump water to our town. From the big water main, people have connected pipes that lead to spigots either inside or outside of their houses. Of course some houses don’t have spigots, and these families get water from their neighbors, walking with pails and buckets, filling them at neighbors’ houses, walking back to their own spigot-less homes, and filling big garbage cans or tanks to preserve water for a few days until the water. Fortunate people, like myself, have cisterns. These are large cement wells in the ground where the water is delivered from the water main and guarded until you either take it out by bucketfuls or buy a pump to pump it into your house.

(On a side note, I have very kind neighbors who lend me their pump in order to fill a tank that is built on top of my cistern so that I can get water in my house. It’s all very complicated, but the basic explanation is that I am one of very few lucky people in my town to have some running water in my house.)

BUT whenever there is some kind of disagreement, the engineer-type-person in Villa Fundación does not turn on the pumps, withholding the water to “teach us a lesson,” or something like that.

And thus, my town had a strike to keep transportation from easily traversing to Villa Fundación. This entailed them lining old tires across the main road (and side roads that people could have taken as detours) and lighting them on fire. I heard that they were also throwing rocks at passing vehicles, but I am not entirely sure this was true because frankly I didn’t want to go to the hot spots and get rocks thrown at me if people were throwing rocks.

As a result of the town’s actions, police came to stop the huelgas and used none other than tear gas. We have very strong winds in my town, and the same winds that had earlier carried the smoke from burning tires to our school also served to carry the tear gas to our school—right at recess. So 800 students, all the teachers, and a visiting school who was at our school for a volleyball game were outside with burning lungs and throats, eyes filled with tears, nostrils red with the peppery spray reaching us. It happened three times throughout the morning, and parents started swarming the school to get their children, worried that the tear gas might soon lead to violence in the streets.

I stayed at the school until the Principal less us dispatch 20 minutes early. She told us all to return in the afternoon for the afternoon classes. The teachers and I were all surprised, but I guess we shouldn’t have been since this direction was coming from the American nun who also made us work on the Dominican Independence Day. (Imagine working on the 4th of July! No one in the United States would put up with that, but that’s a whole other story…)

I walked home using back roads and paths, walking with two other teachers and a swarm of twenty students who live relatively close to me in my barrio. We had to turn around twice to find clear paths, as we would realize that our initial intents were coming up against walls of flame and thick, black smoke from the burning tires.

And when I got home, at least I got the call from Anna, our principal (the American nun) that school in the afternoon would be cancelled.

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Tuesday, March 13th, 2007
12:10 pm - Back to School, Back to School, To Prove to Ana I’m Not a Fool
So, after all the brew-haha with the muchachos grabbing me, I was told to come into the capital to talk to administration. After talking to the Country Director, my APCD (my boss for the Special Ed sector), the Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officer, we decided that I would go back to my site to have a meeting with the nuns and interview the kids who had been involved.

And so, on March 6, we went back to my site and had meeting after meeting after meeting. Many were fruitless, in which boys who were there told the exact same story that I did but assured us that they were not involved. Parents of the boys seemed angry at me, thinking that this was nothing and wondering why I was so upset by the situation. Only one mother apologized to me for her son’s presence, and her son admitted to being the one who held my arms behind my back.

It was a frustrating thing to sit through, seeing all these people who denied being involved, when clearly some of them had done something. Well, we went back to the office in the capital, and I “processed” everything with the Safety and Security coordinator.

Right after the meeting in my site, I felt angry, sad, betrayed, frustrated, and I didn’t know if I would feel safe back in my site. I shared this information in each of the meetings that I was in. But then, after a few more days of thinking about it, I realized I didn’t know how I would feel until I actually went back to my site.

Though they were reluctant to let me come back to let me access my feelings once I was here, they finally let me come back after 10 or 11 days in the capital. It was definitely difficult, and I definitely felt uncomfortable coming back. But it was also a relief to see the support I received from other teachers, from my neighbors, and from my students.

When I returned to my classroom, there were two posters one the wall. One in Spanish had been written by my aid in the afternoon, Maura. It said, “Te queremos y te necesitamos. Gracias para volviendo.” (“We care about you and need you. Thank you for coming back.”) The other sign was from the Directora, Sister Ana, and it said, “It’s great to have you back!” They were both cheerful reminders and helped me get back into the swing of things.

Students were coming up to me all day and asking me where I had been. I just told them that I had been sick in the capital because I didn’t want chismea spreading all over town about what had happened. My host mother, another teacher at the school, invited me over for lunch and talked to me every free second we had during the school day.

At one point, though, I was discussing with Ana the possibility that Peace Corps might still move me. She started railing on me about how it’s not safe anywhere in the world and how I need to take chances or go home. I felt a little upset by that, and then later got more upset with her when she started YELLING at a third-grade student for 20 minutes(!!) because couldn’t write his name. She was so frustrated because even when she spelled it for him, he didn’t know the letters. Okay, granted, he is in the third grade and should know how to write his name. But clearly this child has learning difficulties that haven’t been attended to, and this is not his fault. I felt so bad for this kid and just thought to myself that he will probably never ever want to learn anything ever again after being treated that way in front of so many people.

And it made me wonder, even if Peace Corps does end up letting me stay in my site, do I want to stay here?

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Wednesday, February 28th, 2007
12:07 pm - ¡No me toquen! (“Don’t touch me!”)
So, last night I was sitting in my house, chilling and watching a DVD with some of the children from my barrio. A group of kids celebrating carnival, the Dominican version of Carnival, came up to my house playing the guido and singing for money at about 9:30 p.m.

(Cultural note: This is something that groups of kids do around holidays here, including Christmas. They will go door to door, as carolers would do in the United States; however, they sing very loudly and off-key and sing about how they won’t stop until you give them money.)

So of course, these boys were singing that they wanted ten pesos and that they wouldn’t leave until I gave them money. After about a minute of loitering outside my house singing and peeking in the persianas, they left. However, four muchachos were still lingering outside the persianas. These were muchachos that I knew, who regularly come to visit my house and color or play with my dog or play cards, etc. So I told these four that I would give them chocolates. (Family friends had visited two weeks ago, and my parents sent down tons of chocolate for me.) After they took their pieces of chocolate and left, I thought I would take a bag of chocolate that I had to offer it to the others who had been outside my house asking for money.

When I ventured outside, I saw that the other kids—about twenty in all—had already gone two houses down, and I walked out into the street that was fairly well lit. I walked past the colmado that is directly next to my house, approaching the group of children who had visited my house to distribute the chocolate. All of the sudden, I was swarmed by children who were screaming at me to give them chocolate. They were grabbing for it, and I was a little overwhelmed at being surrounded so quickly, but I thought that it was funny at first. I was throwing chocolate in each direction because it was clear I couldn’t just hand it out since they were ripping it out of my hands.

After about twenty seconds, the fun turned into FUBAR. I started yelling that I didn’t have any more chocolate. Someone grabbed my arms from behind and held them behind my back. Then, some of those amidst the group of boys started grabbing my breats and grabbing my crotch. This went on for about ten seconds. I was trying to kick and get away and trying to bite at them, all the while confused at why students from the school where I teach would be treating me like this.

I also was thinking how I wanted to remain a role model while still fighting back and how we are always talking about how we don’t want to respond to violence with more violence, just escalating the situation. I felt almost like it wouldn’t appropriate if I really tried to fight back hard, trying to punch or kick or headbutt, so I didn’t do any moves that I have been taught in self defense classes or MANDT training.

When I finally broke free of the boy holding my arms, I turned around and slapped the boy who was standing directly behind me because I assumed that he was the one who had been holding my arms. I was so angry, but I just wanted to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

I went directly to the colmado and told them what happened. They asked me why I hadn’t been screaming, but I told them that I had. I said that maybe they didn’t hear me over the yelling of the children.

Then I went home and told Chance about what had happened. He said he was sorry and asked if I was okay and then left to go eat his dinner. I think that he just didn’t know how to react, and honestly I didn’t, either.

I went to bed because I didn’t feel like interacting with anyone else for the night, and I wanted to cry. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I felt so betrayed by my community, by my students—some of whom were present in the group, by my neighbors—some of whom were also in the group, and by myself.

Questions were running through my head: Why hadn’t I fought back? Why hadn’t I been more assertive? Why had they done that to me when I was just trying to share chocolate with them? EVERYONE in the community knows who I am, and virtually all of the boys there were students at the school, if not my own students. Why would they disrespect me in this way? Don’t they know that I have given up so many comforts just to help them make their lives better?! And this is the thanks I get?!

Yes, this is the thanks I get…and I think it SUCKS!

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Saturday, February 10th, 2007
2:11 pm - February is FABULOUS!
So, February has been a pretty awesome month so far! I started it off by giving a charla on how to divide different reading levels in classrooms. We also talked a little bit about how to use differentiated instruction to appeal to all the students in the classroom at appropriate learning levels. It went pretty well, and it’s a start to my “new life” outside the my classroom, which is the job that I was assigned to do a year ago…but I won’t get into that subject of bitterness right now.

Then on the second of February, I made a day trip to the capital for the beginning of Committee Weekend, during which my friend Becky and were elected Med Mission Co-chairs! Basically, we are in charge of recruiting volunteers who will translate in different medical missions where doctors come from the United States to volunteer down here. And in November and February, we are actually in charge of completely organizing medical missions for a specific group from the U.S.

I cannot even tell you how excited I am about this because now I have a chance to help facilitate amazing experiences for other Peace Corps volunteers. And I will feel like I have at least done something here that was worth my time and efforts. I know that sounds kind of bleak, but honestly (and I am told that every Peace Corps volunteer in the history of time feels this way at some point or another) sometimes I take an objective look at what I’m doing, and I feel like it’s all a joke. I think it’s because so much of the work that we do has little ripples of change, the effects of which may not even be seen for years to come.

As a contrast, medical missions are immediate gratification. It’s helping someone whose life is dramatically changed—almost always for the better—in just one day, and we volunteers get to be a part of that! You see how these patients come in with a cleft palate, or no roof in their mouth, or debilitating burn scars that have caused them to lose the use of a hand or a limb. You translate, help them prepare for the surgery, get to stand in on the surgery, and sometimes even get to help do things like be in charge of oxygen bags. (Yay for no medical malpractice lawsuits here!) And then the people come out of surgery able to eat normally, or able to form words the could never form, or able to use an arm that’s been oddly connected to their body because of the way burn tissue grew back. And you see how thankful and happy they are.

So, at least now one of my last experiences here in the Dominican Republic will be a huge two-week-long medical mission that Becky and I will organize next February, which will directly and immediately affect the lives of 500 people.

So, after the election, I headed back to my site for a retreat that started on the 3rd that I had organized with two other girls, Kari and Nora. Kari is a volunteer here working with some Catholic organization and teaching at a Montessori school in one of the poorest sections of the capital. Nora is working with the Clinton Foundation here in the Dominican Republic and is in charge of ordering all of the AIDS drug treatments that are used in the entire country. (I think her job is amazing, but I do not envy her! She is a 22-year-old with a budget of something like 35 million U.S. dollars to negotiate the cheapest drug prices she can and get the drugs here and distributed by various deadlines.) So, anyways, we had spent a few weekends in January organizing this retreat for other young volunteers in the D.R. from countries like the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Germany, and of course, the United States. The retreat was such a success, and it also helped me to regroup, recharge, and re-evaluate why I am here and what my expectations are for my last year of service here.

I did have to leave the retreat early, however, to take another day trip to the capital to help with the intake for the Garrity Medical Mission (the one that Becky and I will be organizing next year). It was a super opportunity to get an idea of how everything will run next year, and I was thrilled to see that one of my former students from my community was there to get a roof put in her mouth.

(Side note: This former student of mine, Daisel, was getting speech therapy from me at the beginning of the year. After the first week of working with her, I took her to the doctor to see if there was a physiological reason for her incorrect pronunciation and letter formation. Indeed there was…she didn’t have a roof in her mouth. I hadn’t even thought to look because first of all, I assumed that a 12-year-old would have had this problem taken care of at this point in her life. Second of all, I just thought that if were something that profoundly basic, she herself would have told me why she had trouble speaking. After talking to her about it, the doctor and I found out that her parents had never taken her to the doctor for this situation and that not only did it effect her speaking, but also her eating and drinking. She always has food and drinks coming out of her nose because she has nothing blocking the passage between her mouth and her nasal cavity. Can you imagine living with that for years and never having anyone intervene for you?)

Well, the whirlwind of events has not stopped. This we got to visit the Presidential Palace as part of the celebration of the 45th Anniversary of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. In addition, we have also participated in many workshops, dinners and luncheons where we have gotten to eat amazing food and shmooze with old Peace Corps volunteers who served here. Oddly enough, the Peace Corps experience seems not to have changed all that much at the core of it all. 

Oh, and this weekend I got my first taste of gambling. Casinos are a fairly big tourist trap down here, and one night some my friends went to play black jack at the Jaragua, the biggest casino in the D.R. After watching them play for awhile, my curiosity got the best of me, and I put down my own $500 pesos (approx. $15 U.S.) to get my chips to start out. I ended up winning $1000 pesos for myself (approx. $30 U.S.) and about $500 pesos for Mike, who was betting on my hands because his started to get poopy. So I was pretty stoked!

Maybe I can use this extra money towards something fun when my godparents come to visit me for a week! They come in this evening, and I can’t wait because they are my first official visitors!!!! Woo-hoo!

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Friday, January 12th, 2007
6:33 pm - Med Mission from Hell
Happy New Years, friends! Luckily I got to spend my New Years Day with Alysia, Becky, Helen, Laura E., and Iny! Unluckily, I spent most of it with a VERY upset stomach.

I woke up on New Years Day at 7:00 in the morning to make it from Cabarete to Sosua to take an 8 o’clock Caribe Tours bus to Santiago. From Santiago, we had to take two cabs so that we could arrive at the retreat center Fusimaña in the mountains outside of Santiago by 12 noon.

When I boarded the bus, I was tired and immediately took advantage of the free seat next to me to try to lay down. After about thirty minutes, I started to feel incredibly nauseous and eventually could fight the pangs no longer. I made my way to the bathroom in the back of the bus and proceeded to vomit uncontrollably in the toilet for about five minutes. The day continued that way until we arrived at the retreat center--I threw up in the bathroom at the bus rest stop, I threw up again on the bus, I threw up when we got off the bus, I threw up in the street while waiting for a cab, I had to have the “chofer” pull over three times to throw up on the side of the road.

Little did I know that it was just an omen for how the rest of the week would go…

We got to the retreat center, and I missed the introduction activities as I spent the day alternately lying in bed trying to sleep or bent over the toilet vomiting anything that had gone past my lips in the past 36 hours. I felt better by the evening and was able to attend our group meeting for Group A (which included Iny, so I was pumped!). In the middle of the meeting, however, I was switched to Group B (which included Becky, so I was happy!) and they told me that I would be alternating groups throughout the week. I was excited that I would get the opportunity to meet all of the 75 nurses and nursing students who had taken their winter break to come down and participate in such an awesome event!

Tuesday morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. to shower, eat breakfast and get out to the sites by 9 a.m. At the first site we went to, Becky and I noticed a calf that was just running around in circles, spinning and spinning until it would knock into something, look entirely startled, shake it’s head, and start spinning again. We thought it was the most hilarious and tragic thing that we had ever seen. I asked the people from the pueblo, “Y que tiene esa vaquita?” (“What is wrong with that calf?”) They told me that she was blind and so she constantly spins and spins and spins. (It made me think that maybe I had witnessed the first cow with Autism, stimming on the feeling of spinning.)

After all the stations we set up, I was given the task of crowd control because they said that I had a “gentle but commanding way of dealing with people”. Basically, I would take people’s tickets in number order, help the secretaries find their paperwork from previous years, and help the patients get checked in to the weighing area, where they would then wait to proceed to one of the medical stations.
The only problem was that the “alcalde”, or town leader, had made his own copies of the tickets and distributed them, thinking that we wouldn’t notice that there were two copies of every number. It was so frustrating, though not surprising, and it really through the secretaries off.

Come lunch time, I was starving and ready for a break. I went over to see what the offerings were and had foolishly expected an alternative to sandwiches since I had let them know about my celiac disease beforehand. They said they would definitely be able to accommodate me, but no such luck. Instead of the cheese sandwiches that everyone else got, I was given two slices of cheese. I was so hungry because I have gotten used to the Dominican custom of lunch being the biggest meal. Usually, I have a big plate of rice and beans, a salad, and some type of meat. But, that day I got two slices of cheese.

The next day, I went prepared with a plan and excused myself at lunchtime to find a Doñą who would feed me my usual version of a Dominican lunch: rice, beans, salad, and some form of meat. I was chastised for not getting back in time, even though I came back fifteen minutes earlier than they had told me to come back, but at least I got some food in my stomach.

On the third day, we didn’t make it all the way to the site where our mission was supposed to be. Basically what happened is that we all had to go up a very muddy hill in our trucks. The third truck started to slide back, and the driver couldn't get it out of gear, The truck went off the side of the road and rolled about three our four times. It was an industrial flat-bed truck, and there were 12 people rising in the back. Fortunately, the only Peace Corps volunteer who had been riding in the truck, Alysia, only hurt a finger and suffered whiplash, bumps, and bruises. One of the nursing students passed away at the site of the accident from the head injuries she suffered, and all the others in the truck suffered from ailments ranging from broken bones to sprains to whiplash to bruising. It was so tragic and so sad!

We in the Peace Corps were required to go to the capital to check in at the med office and see if we needed counseling—and obviously Alysia went to the hospital to be checked over. We continued to try to get in touch with the group who had been left at Fusimaña to see if the mission had been cancelled or if we should return to help translate. However, we never heard from anyone, so I went back to my site a few days earlier than I had planned. That was actually a nice surprise because I had time to prepare myself for going back to school before classes started on the 9th.

So, yeah, hopefully the manner in which my year started will not have an impact on how it continues. :)

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Saturday, December 30th, 2006
10:52 am - Post-Christmas Paseo “Post-Christmas Fieldtrip”
Because I rarely get to leave my site while I am working, unless it is for mandatory Peace Corps events, I took advantage of my Christmas vacation and used it to visit other Peace Corps volunteers in sites that are completely across the island—sites that I normally would NEVER be able to get to otherwise.

Thus, on December 26, Iny and I left my site at seven in the morning to take a guagua to Bani to take another guagua to the Capital to take a 5-and-a-half-hour trip on a Caribe Tours bus to meet our friends Michael Minelli and Adam Matteson in Samana. (The Samana Peninsula is located on the northeastern portion of the D.R. In contrast to my desesrt-like situation close to the beach, the Samana Peninsula is basically a rainforest with some of the top-rated beaches in the world.) From the town of Samana, we took another small guagua about 40 minutes to the beachtown of Las Galeras where Mike’s Italian project partners live.

There in Las Galeras is the headquarters for Mike’s project, which is advancing various opportunities for eco-tourism in the northern coast of the Samana Peninsula…like horseback riding trips to lagoons, or iguana-watching. At this headquarters were cabins for rent, and Mike had already let them know that we were all coming for a night. So they had reserved a four-bedroom cabin for us. It was so lovely! We had a balcony that overlooked the cape, and it was just so gorgeous. At night we could go out and see the stars so brilliantly, it was amazing. We went to the beach for a little while, but it was already getting dark by the time we had arrived in Las Galeras. So we just headed back to the cabin and hung out, talking and catching up.

I also got to give Michael his Christmas gift, a 39-peso teal wife-beater tank top that we had seen in La Sirena when we had been shopping during our Language Training back in December. He had commented on how ugly and perfect it was for a campesino (“farmer”), so I bought it for him as a Christmas gift. He ended up wearing it for about four days straight, and he looked absolutely ridiculous in this teal getup that was a little too short to cover his stomach. But the best part was that people around here really do wear stuff like that, so no one even looked twice or thought it was strange! (But even though it was a great Christmas gift, it still doesn’t hold a torch to my alarm-clock-music-box-pen-holder.)

***
Adam even borrowed Mike's hot teal tank top one night:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelmenelli/354886518/
***

On the 27th of December, we traveled to Mike’s site, about 20 minutes away in Los Rincones. Even though Mike’s project partner lives at the headquarters, the particular project that Mike is working on is based in Los Rincones. It is a totally campo village with only 2 colmados (“convenience stores”) and 500 people. Mike’s house was a slat wood with two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. He had a latrine that was full (we will elaborate on that later), and an outdoor shower—-without a door. He collects his water in a huge metal drum by placing it under the gutters of his house (giant PVC pipes cut in half and attached to the house with wire). In this manner, his rain water is funneled and used for bathing and washing. He never runs out of water, either, because it rains almost EVERYDAY up there in Samana.

So, we had a blast staying at Mike’s site. The first day we went to the beach, Playa Rincon, which was just about a mile walk from his front door. The beach was practically deserted, and we just laid out and played in the waves all day. At one point we buried his totally obliging dog, Cara Mia, in the sand.

We also had an amazing lunch of fresh fish, Yaniqueque (thick bread flavored with coconut), tostones (fried plantain rounds), and moro (rice and beans mixed together). After lunch, one of Michael’s neighbors, Henrique, climbed up a palm tree and knocked us down about 10 fresh coconuts. He then cut them open for us with his machete, and we had fresh coconut milk. After we were done drinking the milk, we banged the coconut shells against driftwood until they split, and then we ate the flesh of the coconut. So gooooood!

That night, we had a conundrum. Where were we going to use the bathroom? We had just been at the beach all day and going to the bathroom there, so it hadn’t been a problem before. But Mike’s latrine was full. He normally uses his basania (a small plastic bucket-like thing that people usually use at night when they don’t want to go all the way outside to their latrines), and then he would dump it into the vacant lot nextdoor. But, we didn’t feel right sharing his basania…although this is what we ended up doing…but just for the pee. For good ‘ole number two, we would go down to the colmado, get some scrap cardboard, go in Mike’s yard and poo on the cardboard, and then throw it over into the vacant lot.

Um, so we all agree that Mike’s latrine fund has got to become a bigger priority. Or he just needs to invest in a “guest basania.”

The following day we went on a hike so that Mike could show us his main project: an eco-tour to Laguna del Diablo, a brackish-water lagoon tucked in the middle of the mountains. It was a five-mile roundtrip hike, and as we started there were no horses available. This would have been fine if it hadn’t been pouring rain from the moment we started hiking the muddy trails. By the time we got back, we had seen gorgeous views, swam in a gloriously hidden private lagoon, wiped out a few times on the trail, been buried up to our shins in mud, and been drenched to our bones.

***
Wet, tired, and only half way to the laguna that is in the backgroud:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelmenelli/354893149/in/photostream/
***

But it was so much fun! Especially since I got the skid mark stain from the fall out of my shorts. :)

***
Picture fof my skid mark from my fall:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelmenelli/354893154/
***

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Tuesday, December 26th, 2006
2:56 pm - Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas to all! I have to tell you that I didn't really miss Christmas and all of the associated festivities because it just didn't feel like Christmas down here. Everything was so different that I didn't feel like you all were doing Christmas-ey things at home since I wasn't doing them here…and since it's still in the 80s or 90s everyday and there are palm trees all around.

Things that were remotely the same:
1) They did start playing Christmas music around here, but it wasn't the same Christmas music I am used to at home--a lot of bachatas and meringues about Christmas. There were two or three typical American carols that the kids sang at school, but the words were completely changed. For instance, "Jingle bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way…" became, "Navidad, Navidad, hoy es Navidad."

2) We had a Christmas pageant at my school, in which students from each grade performed Christmas carols and the 6th-8th grade put on a nativity play. It was pretty much the same as any old Catholic school pageant, except that we had a real live donkey. And guess who got to be the spotlight person who got to follow the donkey around? You guessed it…me!

3) We had a nice luncheon on the last day of school, where all of the teachers got together and did a Secret Santa gift exchange. I saved my gift to open on Christmas Day because I knew I wouldn't be receiving Christmas gifts from anyone else, and I wanted to have at least one gift on Christmas Day.

4) My parents sent me a mini Christmas tree, so I was able to set that up in my house and make it feel a little bit like Christmas. I also passed out candy canes to the children in my neighborhood, and explained to them the significance of the cane. They didn't really care, they just wanted more candy. 


Things that were completely different:
1) On Christmas Eve, or La Noche Buena ("The Good Night") as it is called here, my Peace Corps friend Iny came to visit me in my site, and we went to my host family's house for a feast. Really, it wasn't all that different from what we normally eat; it was just that there was so much MORE of it all. We ate chicken, egg salad, regular salad; there was pasta salad and spaghetti (which of course I couldn't eat). There were a lot more options of drinks, and for desert (which you never really have here) we ate raisins, gummy candies, and chocolates. Iny and I left feeling disgustingly full, and thoroughly loved by my host family.

2) On Christmas morning, I made a pancake breakfast for myself, Iny, Chance, and Shawn. (I brought back gluten-free pancake mix from my October trip to the states, and I was saving it for a special occasion.) It was different than the Hungarian rakkut crumple that my mother usually makes for Christmas morning, but it was a nice little treat because I hadn't had pancakes in about a year. After we finished eating, I passed out the gifts that I had bought for everyone and I eagerly opened my gift that I had received from my Secret Santa at school.

And then I had one of those moments…one of those Wayne World moments. Do you know the part of the movie I am talking about? Well, I'll explain it: Wayne is sitting with his friends, enjoying doughnuts at Stan Mikita's, as Stacey his ex-girlfriend walks in. She hands him a wrapped gift and says it's their anniversary gift. He replies that they broke up three months ago, but she convinces him to open it anyways. He does, and it's a gun rack. He then says: "A gun rack. A gun rack? What am I going to do with a gun rack? I don't have a gun, let a lone many guns that would necessitate an entire rack. What am I going to do with a gun rack?!"

Well, my gift was an alarm clock mounted on a mahogany-colored plastic base with a gold-colored plastic fish next to it. The gold-colored plastic fish has an open mouth, which conveniently serves as a pen holder for the red pen that is attached with a coil (like the kind they have at each bank teller's station in banks) to the mahogany-colored plastic base. The best part is that it's also a music box, because you can turn on a switch and it plays Mozart and the fish's eye glows green.

So, thus, I had my Wayne's World moment of, "What am I going to do with a music-box-pen-holder-paper-weight-alarm-clock?!"

It was also at that moment that I laughed so hard because I knew that if nothing else, this Christmas experience was one unlike any other. I enjoyed it because even though I wasn't with my family and friends at home, I was with the family and friends I have made here. And that's really what Christmas is all about.

But hopefully I will be spending it with you all next year.

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Tuesday, December 19th, 2006
10:58 pm - Ho, ho, ho...not feelin´so jolly!
Okay, usually people tell me to be cheery and happy, to focus on the positive things that are going on in my life when I write my blog entries. And usually I do. Even if I complain or talk about negatives, I try to put a funny spin on it so that it becomes entertaining and light-hearted. But right now I don’t feel like smiling through gritted teeth. I feel like writing exactly how I feel. No sugar-coating. This is what I feel right now.

I am burned out and am counting down the days until Christmas break. I wake up every morning with barely enough energy to drag myself out of bed to go to school. I get frustrated because we are working for hours at Fe y Alegria while every other school in the country (that isn’t run by American nuns—like my school) closed for vacation on December 1st (or at the absolute LATEST December 15th) because that’s how the other public schools run in the country.

This past week my classroom was taken away from me because the administration is getting together gifts and candy to give to our students on December 21st for “Dia de los Niños”. So I have been told to teach classes outside. Can I just say that it is no easy task to take the students who were originally given to you because they are conduct disordered or hyperactive, and try to teach them outside when there are a million distractions?! Oh, and when I went in to my classroom today to get supplies, I noticed that NONE of my students were on the list for gifts and candy on “Dia de los Niños”. And that really made me angry. Fine, abuse my teaching space, and me; but please, don’t forget to include my students!!! It’s not bad enough that they weren’t allowed to participate in the Christmas pageant this past weekend, but you are also going to give the rest of the 1,500 students gifts and candy and leave mine out (all the while using our classroom to prepare everything for the other students)?!? NO!!!!!!!

I am also frustrated because when I got back from my week in the capital for language training (which turned into a week and two extra days because I got diarrhea so bad I sharted myself and because Cha-Cha ate rat poison and almost died), people in my community have been spreading rumors about me.

First of all, they were saying that it was strange (a.k.a. very flirtatious) that I had a friend, Julio, over for dinner when Juan (the Catholic missionary priest-wannabe) wasn’t in town. Here is the story: I was cooking dinner for two Peace Corps friends who were going to come visit me (Ambrosia and Lindsey), and they called at 7 p.m. and said they wouldn’t be able to make it. Thus, I had a lot of food prepared for dinner, so I invited Julio over to help Chance and I eat it. Chance was there the whole time, nothing happened, and I have no interest in Julio, who is a DOMINICAN with three children.

The next rumor amongst my neighbors was that I have been “running a hotel” out of my house because three Peace Corps volunteers have recently (read: within the last three months) come to visit me. Jenny stayed two nights back in September. Granted, Lindsey stayed six nights in October and November, but she was in the middle of a site change and had no place to live while she waited for her APCD to get back from vacation and give her the okay on a new site. Matt visited me the night before we went into the capital for Thanksgiving, and he was only here for one night. So I am sorry that my friends have started to come visit me recently because I can rarely leave my site to go visit them since I work 10 freakin’ hours a day during the weekdays. But why do my neighbors have to judge me for that? Especially since the reason I don’t leave our town is because I am working my butt off to help their kids!!!

And the final rumor is that I was acting inappropriately with Matt the night that he stayed over. We weren’t dating at the time, but since then we have started dating. So I guess that once people in my town found out he is my “novio,” they just assumed that we were doing things because literally, Dominicans have NO understanding of how a male and a female who are attracted to each other can sleep in the same house and not act on their attraction.

(As an example, during Peace Corps training they warned us about how Dominican men have different ideas of what a girl means when she says “No”. In the states, “no” means “no,” but here it’s a different story. They told us about how one time a few volunteers and a Dominincan friend were all at a beach. Two volunteers got their last guagua home, but one female volunteer and her Dominican friend—a male—misssed their last guagua. As a money-pinching Peace Corps volunteer, the girl suggested they split a hotel room with two beds to save money. She assured her Dominican friend that the situation was just to save money and she had no interest in him, that they were just friends. She woke up later that night to him raping her. So, yeah, Dominicans don’t understand…)

So, things have gotten totally out of proportion.

Juan came to me and told me that I have to be careful because my actions could potentially mar my reputation, his reputation, and the reputation of the Catholic Church as well (since he is letting me use the house that is associated with the Catholic Church and their volunteers). He knows that I haven’t done anything wrong, but he also know that appearances are so important here, often more important than the truth.

So I am just very frustrated right now. I give my life in the U.S. up to work with these people, and all they do is judge me and scrutinize me for everything I do. The most annoying thing is that none of my other volunteer friends have undergone scrutiny like this. They have visitors, males and females, all of the time. They can leave their sites and visit others whenever they want to because they don’t work as full-time school teachers (which, by the way, is NOT what I am supposed to be doing here—but that’s a whole other topic of bitterness I don’t want to get into).

I just have to say that I can’t wait to live in the United States where my neighbors don’t literally peek into my windows to see what I am doing. And I am not even kidding! I have had a student see me in a towel after a shower because he was peeking in my windows. Of course he went to school then and told everyone! (I have even had kids jump to look in the higher windows if the lower ones are shut!!!)

WHO DOES THIS?!? Do they have no sense of respect, no sense of privacy?!?!

And the answer is no. They share bedrooms and beds with three other people. They share EVERYTHING. As an example, the water cooler at school only has one cup. We all share it and reuse it over and over again. It may get washed once a week, if that. Basically, if it’s out in the open, it means anyone can use it and doesn’t have to ask permission.

But is it fair that I feel like a prisoner in my own house? That I have to think about everything I do, even if it inside my closed doors, and closed windows? If I am trying so hard to understand their culture, can’t they try to understand and respect mine?!?!

And then, I wonder, am I trying to understand their culture? Or am I being selfish and narrow-minded?

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Saturday, December 9th, 2006
10:53 pm - Language training! woot!
Friends, can I tell you how glorious thee capital is? I think I might have mentioned it before, but I will say it again: the capital is a wonderful, wonderful place—a respite from the campo life that includes free internet, air conditioning (it’s still in the 90s here), a variety of food offerings, functioning electricity and water, and other Peace Corps volunteers with which to share it all.

So let me just tell you right now that I was spoiled this past week because I was invited—nay, required—by Peace Corps to be in the capital for the entire week for our six-month IST (in-service training). It was great because I got to be in the capital with all the Special Ed and Environmental Ed volunteers from my swearing-in group. This conveniently includes some of my most very favorite people (among them, Matt—shweet!). So needless to say I was quite content.

But it gets better. I got to stay with my Doña Nene who I lived with in the capital during training. I got to see all of my “family” there and catch up with what they have been doing. (Last time I saw Nene at the end of August, she had just been diagnosed with colon cancer, but now she says she is doing better and that her treatment is working. I don’t know if she was just lying to make me worry less, which is totally something she would do, so still keep her in your prayers if you are prone to praying…)

And better yet, Doña Nene has three dogs, so I knew she wouldn’t mind if I bought Cha- Cha. Thus, Cha-Cha got to see the big capital once again. And she freaked out. Campo life is a lot calmer with the occasional moto and the VERY rare car passing on our dirt road. So she wasn’t used to the honking, traffic, exhaust, and general commotion that is a constant in Santo Domingo. She was terrified to walk on the sidewalk, ducking at every car that passed. And she would have random outbursts of barking for seemingly no reason at all.

Well, the week of Spanish classes passed quickly as we reviewed such imperative things as five different forms of the subjunctive (which even our Spanish teacher told us we will never use), lots of slang, new vocabulary that we wanted to learn (you can guess what that entailed), and medical vocabulary (because everyone in my class happens to be participating in a medical mission from January 1st-January 7th).

On the last day of classes, when my friend Tri came to pick me up so we could walk to class together, we found a small kitten crying in the alley behind my Doña’s house. We picked it up and decided to take it with us to class to try and see if someone would want to take it home. It looked exactly like Fulana, the cat that I had before my trip to the U.S.A. (This is the cat that Cha-Cha played with a little too roughly while Chance was taking care of the two, thus injuring her beyond repair; this in turn caused Chance to decide that the most humane outcome would be to drown her.) I felt like it was a good omen and that surely someone would take her if we brought her to class with us, but I knew that someone could not be me because I didn’t want Cha-Cha to have another living chew toy.

Everybody fell in love with the cute little blue-eyed, gray striped kitten, but no one could take it. (Those who didn’t have pets already live in houses or apartments that don’t allow them.) Eventually, Tri decided that he would take Zoe (the kitten was quickly given the name by Iny, who is now Zoe’s self-proclaimed aunt). But Tri was leaving to go to the U.S. two days after Spanish classes ended to spend Christmas with his family. So my Spanish teacher, Tania, said that she would take care of Zoe until the middle of January—and this was with the knowledge that Zoe needs to be hand fed milk with a medicine dropper because she is still too young to lap milk out of a bowl or eat real food. Can you imagine that?! How kind and supportive are these people? I love Tania and all of our training staff!!!

We ended the terrific week by going to a Aguilas-Licey baseball game on Friday night. (The Aguilas are the team from Santiago, the second-largest city in the country. Licey is the team from Santo Domingo, the capital city. So this game was between the two biggest rivals in the country.) The game was in Quisqueya Stadium in the capital, and the crowd was so charged! The game was fairly boring, with Licey leading 4-0 from the second inning until the eighth. But amazingly, in the ninth inning, the Aguilas scored six runs for a huge upset!!! The crowd was absolutely insane, and we had such a great time hanging out and being goofy with all the Dominicans around us (including Danny, another one of our language trainers who accompanied us to the game).

Like I said, the capital is a fun, fun place!

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Sunday, December 3rd, 2006
6:33 pm - Dia de Accion de Gracias
I know that it’s been awhile, but I hope each person’s respective Turkey Day was lovely. My Thanksgiving was actually pretty okay because all of the Peace Corps DR volunteers and staff chip in and rent a country club. Furthermore, there is a whole organization called the THANKSGIVING COMMITTEE that has many sub-committees to help organize different aspect of the day. Thus, people volunteer for these various and sundry committees which result in: a Turkey Trot 5K, an amazing thanksgiving meal, swimming in a large pool, playing 3-on-3 basketball and soccer, a talent show, dancing contests, and a dating game. I actually missed all the sports games because I cooked 11 trays of stuffing with my friend Laura, another special ed volunteer. (Yeah Stuffing and Sauce committee…which I will never volunteer for ever again!!!) Okay, I can’t complain that much because I got to stay in the Associate Director's swank apartment. Laura and I had hot showers, a guest bedroom and bathroom all to ourselves, good food, great company, and I got to cook in a real kitchen!

However, I did get to run in the Turkey Trot 5K we had at 7 am in Parque del Sur! It was so beautiful and serene in the city, overlooking the Carribean Ocean. When I live in the campo, the only park are all adorned with concrete and tiles. Blah! But this was beautiful and green and lush! It was almost like running in a park in the States…except that it was already in the 80s on Thanksgiving Day at 8 a.m. in the morning.

In terms of the other aspects of my life, living with the Canadian clown, Chance, is going well now. When I got back from my trip to the U.S., Chance’s family had just arrived for a weeklong visit. So while he spent a week in Puerto Plata at the beach, I was getting acclimated to teaching again. So, I had a little more than a week with the house to myself, during which I got “gripe” and had fever while feeling miserable and alone. As a result, I came to the realization that I appreciate having him around just to chat in English and vent about Dominicans when I need it. So despite his occasional laziness and irresponsibility, he is a generally good person with a good sense of humor and it is nice to have him around.

As far as school is going, things seem to be improving. Although some of the students seemed to have regressed during my 19-day trip to the states, a lot of the students really excelled in the evaluations I gave when I got back. Furthermore, I have gained another ayudante, or teacher’s aid, for my morning classes. Even though I am still planning for about 12 different groups of kids each day, it makes my life a lot easier when I know that there will be another person in the class. And it’s also better for the students because I can break them into smaller, leveled groups according to their various abilities. This allows us to target their needs in a much more effective way. So, that makes me happy!

The Directora of the school, the American nun Sister Ana, has told me I will be able to leave these classrooms to the ayudantes and team-teach with the other teachers in the school. I also eventually want to get into the preschool, too, and help them target their curriculum with more literacy preparedness. For some odd reason, they do not emphasize the importance of exposing young children to books, letters, words, sounds, numbers, etc. The teachers are taught in their university classes that pre-school aged children (3, 4, and 5 years of age at our school) should not be taught letters or numbers explicitly because they are too young. This is exactly the opposite of all of the research that has been done on literacy. So now you can see why I am so excited to get over to the preschool side to help them enhance their program.

I am not coming home for Christmas, which many of you already know (since I was just home in October for a wedding). I will be celebrating Christmas Eve one of my Peace Corps friends, Iny. We are going to my host family’s house on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day we are going to have dinner with the nuns that I work with. After that I have a whirlwind break planned during which I will travel to see other volunteers who are staying in-country for the Christmas season. It will all commence with a New Year’s celebration on the northern coast near Puerto Plata.

Though I am very sad that I will not be celebrating the Christmas season with my friends and family at home in the states, I am excited about getting to celebrate a Dominican Christmas and to see how another culture, especially one so steeped in religion, will honor the celebration. And frankly, I am curious as to how families that can barely afford to eat will express their happiness when gift-giving is not really plausible. And finally, I am interested to see how I am going to react to a Christmas that (seemingly) isn’t as driven by commercialism as the Christmases I am accustomed to in the States. So I will keep you all updated on how everything goes.

Two more things before I go:
1) My friends went to a Target-like Dominican store called “La Sirena” (translated: “The Mermaid”) last week to do some shopping and they saw a person working as Santa Claus. The person was what you would normally expect from a department store Santa, dressed in the red suit adorned with white fuzz and wearing cute little old-man spectacles. But they noticed one thing that was weird--this black man dressed as Santa Claus had used white face paint to make himself a white Santa Claus. It’s just another weird example of how Dominicans refuse to accept that they are black.

2) Juan (the Catholic missionary wannabe priest whose real name is Sean who lives in my site) will soon be opening an internet center in my site, so I will soon have more regular access to internet!

And finally, as Christmas draws near, I am sending Christmas cards to the states. So if you want one, and I do not have your address, please send it to me so I can include you in my merry wishes!

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Monday, October 9th, 2006
5:29 pm - Meet my new roommate.
So friends, I hope you all got a little updated with what has been going on in my life since I was able to add some entries to my blog last weekend.

The reason that I had so much access to the internet is that last week I was in the capital for a two-day convention about how to set up an after-school resource center in my community. It was so cool! We were trained in how to facilitate activities with the kids by using theater, literature, the arts, and athletics and melding it with teaching. Now, this seems very natural to all of us who have been raised in the U.S. and who have experienced these things in schools and camps as we have grown up. But the schools here really do not incorporate a lot of creativity into learning. The main method of teaching is the old memorization and regurgitation routine.

So, as you can imagine, this convention was an incredible experience for the Dominicans who were involved. Each Peace Corps volunteer who was there had to bring at least one counterpart to share in the experience and to serve as a resource to set up the after-school center in their respective site once they got home. These Dominicans were so excited to participate. Everyone’s project partners would get so involved! It was such an amazing experience to see the presenters unlocking the participants’ creativity in ways they had never had the opportunity to express themselves before. It was just so magical to watch, I only hope I can be that way with my students, but we’ll see about that…

Another awesome thing was that the conference center where we were having the conference was AMAZING!!! It not only had running water, but HOT running water. It had FLUSHABLE TOILETS and AIR CONDITIONING in the rooms. The beds were so comfortable, and the food was INCREDIBLE! We had fricken’ capucinno for breakfast and wine at dinner!!! I don’t know how the Peace Corps booked that place, but I am pretty sure it is the only time we will ever have a conference there. And I cannot tell you how thankful I am to have been a part of it!

Another thing that happened last weekend was that my new roommate, the Canadian clown, arrived on Saturday. His name is Chance McRobert, and he is pretty rad. He has a great sense of humor (which I suppose is kind-of a prerequisite for a clown), and so far he seems to be an awesome roommate.

The only problem I have is that he is a puppy-killer. Yes, a clown and a puppy-killer.

I mean, it’s not like he does it for fun, or anything. It’s just that when I came back from the course in the capital, kids in the community had found three puppies that were dying in a field. The kids gave them to my friend Shawn, who already has a dog Milagro and doesn’t want more dogs to take care of. Since they were all females, we figured that someone has just discarded them hoping that they would die in the field. You see, people here do not like to own female dogs because:
1) They will have puppies that you will eventually have to take care of or find homes for (or put in a field to die) because it’s not as if they would EVER think of spaeing or neutering animals here.
2) In this macho culture, it is believed that female dogs are not as naturally territorial as male dogs. Thus, they won’t be as protective and vicious towards intruders—which is about the only reason people actually have dogs here.

So, at the insistence of Shawn, Chance and I took the dogs for a few days. We bathed them, fed them, and I tried my best to find them homes. But it wouldn’t ever work. I would find people to take them, but as soon as they found out the dogs were females, they would back out and say they didn’t want any of the beautiful little pups.

Since I already have Cha-Cha, which has been an experience in itself, and I don’t have money or time for three MORE dogs, I couldn’t possibly take another one. (Imagine me coming home in two years with four dogs, and trying to find a place to live, not to mention paying vet bills for four dogs with the cost of vets in the States. I would be homeless and broke!) Maybe I could have taken one, but there was no way I could pick between them all—they were so precious!

Shawn and Chance decided the most humane thing to do would be to kill the dogs. I told them not to tell me when or how they did it because I knew I would be VERY unhappy when it happened. So, while I was teaching at the school on Monday, Chance took the puppies and drowned them. (Shawn, I am told, could not participate in the senseless killings, even though it was his idea in the first place.) I am fully aware that the puppies would have probably died of starvation and thirst if Chance hadn’t done it, and that they definitely would have been abused walking the streets here, but still it’s hard for me to accept that they were drowned.

I mean, I guess one way to look at it is that it’s a more primitive form of how a dog pound functions in the states, but it still was not a fun thing to experience—getting attached to cute little puppies and then coming home to Cha-Cha, obviously knowing why the other puppies were no longer there.

The most ridiculous part of the whole situation was that my mother called that night because it was my grandmother’s 94th birthday and my whole family was out at dinner together. So they passed my mom’s cell phone around, and I got to talk to everyone.
When the phone got back to my mother, she asked how the situation was going with the dogs. I told her that they had been euthanized, and she asked who had done it. I was like, “The clown!” She was like, “The clown killed the puppies?!” while my five-year-old cousin Lawrence was sitting next to her in the restaurant. I heard him in the background scream, “A clown killed the puppies?!” with a clear tinge of terror.

So poor Lawrence’s impressions of clowns will be forever tainted, even though it really was an act of mercy.

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Tuesday, September 19th, 2006
3:58 pm - I hope I don't get Dengue.
Okay, first I have to say that I am never going to talk smack on Dengue again. It is why I have time to be here to write and check my e-mail. You see, it was announced yesterday that we don’t have class today because the island is suffering from a Dengue outbreak. Thus, the government gave students the day off to help fight the “guerra contra Dengue” (war against Dengue). All students above fifth grade have to meet in the morning to hear a workshop about Dengue and how it is spread (the bite of a certain breed of mosquitoes). Then they will go out in to the community and try to find standing water and pour it out and talk to community members about how to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes (uh…pour out or cover standing water). Nevermind that our school got out early twice last week because the one rich family in the town paid to have the school fumigated for mosquitoes and that hoards of people from the government were traipsing around today passing out Dengue-awareness flyers. If there is a reason to cancel school, this country jumps at it…and I am NOT complaining about that!

On a totally different note, I am finally living in my on house now, and even though it was really difficult getting everything rearranged and semi-working, it was totally worth it!

I have to give all the credit to my friend Shawn (called “Juan” here since the people can’t say the SH in “Shawn”). He is a Catholic missionary from Canada who was in the monastery for 14 years and then for various and sundry reasons decided not to become a priest about a week before he was about to be ordained. He lives here in my site, and has been living here for about two years working to meld the spiritual life with community development. As I was looking for places to live earlier in the summer, he said that he would start keeping an eye out for me. He approached me a few days later and offered me a deal I could not refuse.

It was a house that I ran by everyday and looked at longingly. It is rather large for a Peace Corps volunteer, but the main reasons I took it were:
1) an indoor kitchen. (I can’t even explain to you all how happy I am to cook!)
2) room to plant my own vegetable garden.
3) a cistern which provides reliable access to water—a very valuable and elusive commodity in my site.

So, not only did Shawn hook me up with this amazing house, but he is not charging me rent, either. Some senile old millionaire who lives in the capital was letting Shawn use the house as a place for visitors of the church—for free. So I get to live here for free as well. There is just one catch. Shawn is going to have a friend visiting from Canada who will help him with community development for six months. This friend of Shawn’s is named Chance, is 19-years-old, and is a professional clown. He is arriving on September 29th and will be sharing the house with me for the six months that he is here. This is totally fine because there are three bedrooms in the house, so we have ample room. I am telling people in the community that he is my cousin so that no rumors start about me having a man living with me. This will be better in the long run because everyday people are asking me why I live alone and how I can do it without being scared.

The only complaint that I have about the house is the persistent tarantula sightings. I have only been living here a week, and so far I have caught two. This is a little bit alarming because I don’t like to kill spiders…but I don’t like to have tarantulas crawling around my house, either. The first tarantula that was in my house was spotted by one of the neighborhood kids (a constant presence in my house if I am home). I told him that I have Hungarian heritage and that in the Hungarian culture there is a belief that killing spiders leads to bad luck. So I told him that I wouldn’t kill it; if he wanted to, he could. Otherwise, I said, I would catch it under a cup, slide a stiff piece of paper underneath, and take the tarantula outside. He opted to let me handle the situation, and later he was telling another kid about how I had captured it. The two boys then started talking about how they usually play with them for a while and then kill them. I was like, “Yeah, right! You wouldn’t even get near it, nonetheless play with it!!”

Now, my work is another thing in my life that it giving me a multitude of things to complain about. Right now I have about 35 kids on my caseload, and I give more and more children evaluations each day. The needs among these kids range from everything you can imagine. Here are just some of their profiles:

I have one 13-year-old student whose injuries from a childhood accident has rendered his speech inaudible and his intellectual capabilities at the first grade level. He has been sitting in a first grade classroom for three years and cannot even write his name on his own. In addition, he also suffered the trauma of losing his mother last year when his parents were expanding their home, and a brick fell on her head and killed her.

Another student is just attending school for the first time in her life. She is 8 years old, and only knows how to identify and write the letter “a”. Today we worked on the vowels for an hour and a half, and she could only write “a” and “o” by the end of class.

One of my students is so hyperactive and conduct disordered that he was passed around through five different instructors last year, ending with the Directora (the principal) of our school. She finally told his parents that he was not welcome back to the school when she couldn’t handle his misbehavior or energy levels. I work with him ALONE and we have a VERY structured class.

Another one of my students was in my summer camp, and he caused me a lot of concern. As a 9 year old, he started school for the first time last year. He sat in the first grade for that year, and learned NOTHING—not even how to write or identify a single letter or number. He definitely has dysgraphia (he can not even TRACE circles and lines, nonetheless letters or numbers) as well as other learning disabilities.

There are so many aspects of the job that are frustrating that I can’t even enumerate all of them. First off, schools here are different in that the children only attend school for half a day each day. You would think this would make me happy—a half a school day each day, right? WRONG! We, the teachers, work for two half days each day. In other words, one group of about 700 kids comes to school from 8-11:45. Then we teachers go home and come back to school when a totally DIFFERENT group of 700 kids comes from 2:00-5:30. So, yeah. All of these kids who are already behind only get maybe 3 hours of school each day, once you subtract time for snack and recess.

So, then think of the students that I am working with. Depending on the severity and type of their respective disabilities, I see some students in groups and some as individuals. But I am working with so many different kids and on so many specialized cases that I only get to see each kid for 3 HOURS EACH WEEK!!!!

Furthermore, I have few supplies for my students. I don’t even have anything to write on to explain things. We don’t have paper to give them worksheets. We don’t have a copier to copy anything. I don’t have a blackboard to write examples or explain because my “classroom” is a large storage closet. Right now I am using a spiral notebook and holding it up and writing in that with thick markers—all things that I brought back from the states from my trip home in May.

Then there is the fact that I don’t have textbooks or workbooks for my students. The normal classes don’t have enough books for all the students, so I definitely don’t get any. Even those classes that do have workbooks have to use them over again for an unknown period of years (Who knows when the government will send us more?), so the students can’t actually write in them. They have to copy activities out of their workbooks into their own notebooks to do their work—if they can even afford notebooks. (I mean, there really are only a few that can’t afford them and the school got donated notebooks and gives them to those who REALLY need them.)

The problem with this is that many of the kids in the school appear to be literate to the teachers because they can COPY anything you put in front of them. But if they actually have to tell you what it means or even what the letters are, a lot of them can’t do it. At least the teachers in my school are aware that this occurs because I am working at one of the best schools in the country. However, during my training when we were exposed to many other schools in the country, so many teachers were like, “I don’t understand! She can write an entire page, but she doesn’t know how to read!! How can that be?” (Uh, if you are only teaching copying, that’s all they learn. Like, I am pretty sure I could copy the Chinese alphabet, but I would have no idea what the heck I was writing.)

So. Maybe they can’t read and have no idea what it is they are writing. But man, can they copy!!!!

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Friday, August 25th, 2006
3:55 pm - Stuff about me...
Well, lately I have been thinking a lot of weird thoughts. For one, I was reflecting on how when I had first arrived back here after being punted to the U.S., I remember asking other volunteers who had been in service at least a half a year if the time seems to pass quickly. On of them, Jennifer, told me, “The days seem like an eternity, but the weeks and months pass really quickly.” And I know that seems like a contradiction in terms, but she was definitely right. I don’t know if it’s the repetitive motions of passing each day in a very routine manner, or if it’s because of the slower pace of EVERYTHING here, but the days definitely seem to crawl. However, whenever I get to the end of a week or month, I feel like it flew right by without me even noticing.

I realized recently that it is not just we volunteers who feel this way; it is also the natives. I realized this when I arrived at the Church on Sunday evening to help Sean, the Canadian Seminarian who lives in my town, give English classes to some of the townspeople. Sean was introducing me to the class, and one of my neighbors, Moreno, was like, “Ella es la persona que esta corriendo dos o tres veces cada dia. (She is the one you see running two or three times a day).”

Now, I’m not gonna lie, I love running. And there have been times where I have gone on two runs in one day. But NOT here. Not in the Carribean. Not in 90+ degree heat. Not when I am already working my butt off with my job and have barely enough energy to get one run under my belt. Not when I have a difficult enough time keeping hydrated while drinking at least a gallon of water a day.

To tell you the truth, I run about four or five times a week here, and that’s what I told Moreno. And he didn’t believe me. He was like, “You run all the time—in the morning, midday, in the evening. You are always running!” And I realized that it is true that I don’t have a very set schedule for my running, which accounts for him having seen me at different times during the day. But never have I run multiple times in one day. Why would he think that? And it was then that I realized that the days pass just as slowly for them, too. They are so repetitious that they just all meld together. When I run by Moreno in the morning one day and in the afternoon the next, it all seems like the same to him.

Other signs of people not realizing how time is passing is that with fairly high frequency people forget what day of the week it is. I know this happens to people in the U.S., too, but it happens A LOT here. People are always asking me what day of the week it is, and I assume it’s because everyday seems pretty much a reproduction of the previous day. I am guilty of it, too. Even though I look at my calendar everyday to review meetings or appointments I have for the week, I often get confused as to what day of the week it is.

Here’s another thing I was thinking…what do the majority of people here think about? It occurred to me that they don’t have as much content knowledge as the average person in the U.S., especially since many people here aren’t literate. And those who are literate RARELY actually read for interest or fun—at least in the campos and pueblos. For instance, many people in my pueblo have told me that when you read you are using up your brain cells. Since we each only have a limited number of brain cells to use up in our lives, they say, you really shouldn’t read unless you HAVE TO because it wastes your brain cells. (Yes, really. Many people believe this. I am not making it up.)

I don’t know. I wish I could just somehow capture the thoughts of the average person in my pueblo—just for one day—just to see the kind of things they think about and to maybe understand them better. I started thinking about this when one of my Haitian friends asked me why I run all the time. I told him that it helps me clear my mind and relax. I told him that I think about things that are bothering me, too, and that I come up to solutions for problems I might be facing. He said, “Well, then you must have a lot of problems.” And I said that often times I think about my work and the problems of specific students and what I could do to help them.

So this made me reflect on how I have a lot to ponder if I start thinking about the subject of work. This prompted me to wonder what he might think about when he is thinking about his work. He clears plots of land for people and digs holes for cisterns and latrines. Maybe he thinks about how dry the dirt is here and how hard it is to dig? Maybe he thinks about how hot it is and how thirsty it makes him? I just wonder what you think about all day if you aren’t exposed to different books, different theories, different religions, different places, etc. I wonder what you think about if you are not taught how to analyze things because the school system here is very much about memorization and regurgitation. People are not asked to compare and contrast things, or to make their own arguments or decisions—well, not in the public schools, in which 96% of the population that is actually going to school is attending.

I would like to make an aside here that my host mom just handed me a “snack” of sardines and malfongo (plantains mashed up with a lot of salt and garlic). Never in my life would I have ever contemplated eating sardines before I came here, especially for a mid-afternoon snack. (And never again will I eat them once I move into my own house here.) But I am hungry, and that’s what she just handed me. Do you know how disgusting sardines are? Packed in oil? The grossest part is that they aren’t pieces of fish meat like tuna, you know? It’s a whole bunch of fish PARTS in this little can with their innards and little spines all floating around in oil. It’s so gross! I always to eat all the fish stuff first whenever we have sardines—which is at least two or three times a week—just to clear the gross stuff off my plate. I also figure that that way I might be able to get the nasty taste of the sardines out of my mouth by following it with the side dish.

Oh, I can’t wait to cook my own food!!!! Just one week until I move into my own house!

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Thursday, July 13th, 2006
9:10 am - Yay for puppies!
Okay, so the trip to Samantha’s site in Sabana de la Mar was incredible! Her site is right on the ocean, but the beach is filthy where she lives, so to get to a nice beach, you have to take a ferry across the bay to Samaná, the large peninsula that is at the top of the Dominican Republic. I didn’t get to go to the beach with her and Kimberly, another volunteer who was helping Sam with the taller, but I did enjoy myself nonetheless.

We worked hard on the presentations, and had class for the teachers 6 hours a day. I taught about motivation, the classroom environment, setting expectations, and behavior management. I was intimidated at first because I was presenting with two people who have been in country for over a year now, and their Spanish is SO superior to mine. But I asked the teachers to pardon me, explaining that I was a new volunteer, and they were very patient and helpful towards me!

*****
Pictures of me bumbling in Spanish:
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=99ccre2.jpg

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=415ere2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=7309re2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=e358re2.jpg
*****

We spent the nights hanging out, listening to American music (not bachatas blaring from colmados!), and working on didactic materials for the demonstration that would be occurring on Friday. And we ate! We ate delicious SPICY non-Dominican foods. One night we had tacos, another night vegetarian chili, and another night peanut butter and jelly. Sadly, even those these meals would be fairly blasé if cooked in the States, these dishes are all like gourmet delicacies here, and my mouth is watering now just thinking about them… And she had rice cakes! I didn’t have to eat my “sandwiches” on casabe! I had rice cakes! (I think my eyes got a little teary with happiness when I saw them.)

*****
Pictures of Sam, Kim, and me being waaaay too excited about tacos:
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=e19dre2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=6699re2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=7bb1re2.jpg
*****

I ended up staying an extra day in Sabana de la Mar because a fortuitous thing happened. The first day of our class, as we were returning to the school for the session after lunch, a woman ran over a dog in the street with her moto, totally sinverguenza. It was as if she was aiming for it. The dog yelped and limped along, but it didn’t die. It just seemed to have a broken leg. We asked who the dog belonged to, and she said it was hers. Samantha yelled at her and said if she couldn’t take care of it, she should give it to someone who would. The woman responded that Sam could take it, but we had a class to teach so we had to go.

As we were teaching the class, I thought more and more about that poor dog. And I thought about how I have been planning to adopt a dog once I get my own house. And I thought that I would just call my host family and see if maybe they wouldn’t mind if I brought a dog home with me and kept it in a box on the porch at night until I move out to my own place.

So that night when we got to Sam’s house, I tried calling my family, but I couldn’t get through. However, I decided that this dog needed a different home. And I knew that my host family was one of the rare Dominican families that actually likes pets and treats animals with respect, so I didn’t think they would mind as long as I was the one taking care of the dog. So the following day, I went to the house and said I would take it. However, a man there told me that someone else had already adopted it and taken it to the vet the day before and that it was fine. (This was all a lie because the dog was limping around the house, but whatever…) So, basically I couldn’t have it.

But there were children swarming around Samantha and I in the street because wherever there is a gringa/o, children are sure to follow. The group of children told me that they had puppies in their house and that I should come look at the puppies to see if I wanted one. So I did, and they were darling, healthy little things. The children told me that the mother was a Chihuahua, though, and I am not a fan of little yippy things. Plus, I would like a dog that will eventually be able to proteger me in my own house, so a healthy little Chihuahua just wasn’t going to do. But then, another kid from across the street walked into the casita carrying a little dog in the most inhumane way possible. He had one front paw in each of his hands with the back legs hanging down. The puppy had goop coming out of both eyes, sores on it’s body (that was sparsely covered with hair), visible fleas and ticks, and a bariga of a belly that looked like a sure sign of parasites. When he put the dog on the ground, she could barely stand, and her legs wobbled precariously as she walked. And I knew that this was the dog I wanted.

Her name is Cha-Cha, a derivative of muchacha. Her apodo is Chachita. And she is preciousa! I took her home to Sam’s and bathed her and fed her our leftover tuna from lunch. She pounced on the dish as if she had never eaten in her life! About an hour after she finished a plate of tuna, she finished a container of yogurt and a bowl of water. This little girl had been deprived!

Right now she is in the vet in the capital, where they confirmed that she does have parasites, anemia, fleas, ticks, and mange. (I didn’t even know mange really existed. Now I know where the expression “mangy mutt” comes from, because that was the pure definition for Cha-Cha when I found her.) I am going back on Saturday to pick her up and bring her home. I am so excited about seeing the potential that this dog will have once she is finally healthy! Aw, she is my little Dominican baby!

*****
Pictures of Cha-Cha:
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=20cere2.jpg

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=235cre2&.dnm=857dre2.jpg&.src=ph
*****

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Wednesday, July 5th, 2006
8:31 am - Happy 4th of July! (La Dia de Independencia de Los Estados Unidos)
Well, friends, I have to brag a little bit about my 4th of July. I was a little depressed at it’s passing because in the States on every 4th, my entire family goes camping together. We have a family reunion at my cousin’s hunting cabin in the mountains of Virginia. We cook out every night, go fishing, go swimming in the lake and the creek, we play horseshoes and volleyball and jailbreak, and stay up late either hanging around the bonfire talking or playing poker until the wee hours of the morning inside the cabin. But the part I love the most is that it’s with family, and it’s just an awesome way to catch up and see how much everyone has grown and changed, but still stayed the same. I love it!

So I was basically dreading the 4th of July here, until I heard of something that was going on…

And so I desperately wanted to go to Pedernales, the southernmost and westernmost point in the Dominican Republic. A border town to Haiti with nothing but a few colmados and a bank, it’s pretty sparse. Why, you might ask, did I want to go there? Because about 55 Peace Corps Volunteers were meeting there to go camping in a national park, Bahia de Aguilles, and then go to another beach, San Raphael, the following day. I wanted to go because I hadn’t really been on a vacation yet here, and I wanted the opportunity to catch up with people who had been my fellow trainees because I hadn’t seen any but two since I was medically separated back in April. Plus, it would be like being back in the states—camping on the 4th of July with the people who comprise my (Peace Corps) family.

However, in early June I was invited by a SpEd volunteer who has been here a year, Samantha, to partake in a workshop on how to run a literacy camp. The workshop would be held on July 3-July 7. She asked me to present parts on teacher motivation, student motivation, behavior, and behavior management. I told her that I would be happy to, as long as I could present later in the week during her weeklong training, since I had plans to go camping with everyone else on Monday and Tuesday.

Well, Sam compiled this 125-page manual of GLORIOUSNESS based on input from other volunteers and myself. And then she called and asked me to present on Monday and Tuesday. I didn’t want to let her down, and she had put so much work into getting the whole manual put together, so I told her that I could work with her instead of going camping.

BUT THEN, when we were in the capital working on formatting and printing the manual, she was struck with a parasite and rendered fairly useless for about a week. (That is unless you entered her in a toilet-bowl filling contest. Or a rehydration salt-ingestion contest. She would have been the CHAMP in either of those!) Thus, she realized that she would have to push the training back a week.

So I decided that this was God’s way of telling me that I should go to Pedernales because I was meant to be camping on the 4th of July. There wasn’t anything I could do to help with the manual, and I still had an opening in my schedule to help Samantha out with the workshop even if it was held one week later than originally planned.

Now, God was giving me this sign on Saturday evening, and everyone was leaving from his or her respective sites to get to Pedernales on Sunday. So I had to act fast and get a travel plan in action, since I basically had no idea how to get there or where I was really going when I got there. I called some friends who had been trying to convince me to go. They said they were going to take a 3 a.m. guagua from Las Matas de Farfan on Monday morning because we all needed to be in Pedernales by 11:30 to catch the rented flatbed truck that was going to give all 55 of us a ride to the dock. The group suggested that I meet them at Cruce de Quince (which is literally nothing but a crossroads of two major highways) at 5 a.m. I realized that this was not plausible because:
1) The first guagua that leaves my site is at 5:30 a.m. and an express guagua to the
capital, which is the exact opposite direction of Cruce de Quince;
2) The closest city to Cruce de Quince that any guagua from my site travels to is Azua,
which about 15 kilometers to the east of Cruce de Quince;
3) Even if I could catch a guagua from my site at an ungodly hour of the morning, I
could not walk from Azua 8 miles alone on Route 2 to meet my friends at Cruce de
Quince at 5 a.m., and no one was going to give me a bola at that hour.

So we started investigating other options. The next morning, we had a game plan in the works. I left my site at 4 p.m., and got to Jenny’s house in Las Matas de Farfan at about 7:30 p.m. My friends Marc and Jen B. were already at Jenny’s house chilling, and our friend Matt showed up ten minutes after I arrived. (Now I’m going to digress for a moment. I think it’s a little unfair that these four volunteers all from our training group are within 30 minutes of each other. I don’t have a single volunteer within an hour and a half of my site, but they all have each other, plus like five other volunteers within a 30 to 45 proximity! It’s so poopypants! Okay, I’m done complaining…) We all caught up, talked, listened to music, and hung out with Dominican friends until 2:30 a.m., when we went to the parada to catch the guagua.

We were the first passengers on the guagua, and like the silly Americans that we are, we figured we would have this 3 a.m. transit to ourselves, expecting to share it with perhaps a dew other Dominicans. But we were so wrong! The guagua spent an HOUR driving around Las Matas de Farfan, picking up other passengers at their doorsteps until we were crammed full, regular Dominican style. (I wonder how long it will take me to realize that I will never have a guagua ride with space and room to myself? It still shocks me how packed they get them. And I still get on a fairly vacant guagua with the hopeful optimism that it might actually remain that way throughout an entire trip. Haha! I am such a silly gringa! Oh, when will I learn?!)

We made it to Cruce de Quince by about 4:55 a.m. It was still pitch black outside, and as I mentioned before, there isn’t much to this spot. It is literally a crossroads of two major roadways that happens to be adorned with a military checkpoint. (All this means is that there is a little latrine-sized shack, and there are one or two guards standing on the side of the road who wave you on if you are Dominican or make you pay a bribe to drive on if you are Haitian.) So, we stood there on the side of the road for an hour in the dark with our packs on, trying to wave down any truck that passed. We were trying to get a bola, or free ride, about 45 minutes to the west to a town called Barahona. From there we would be able to get another guagua to Pedernales. We waited and waited. I scared a few trucks by running after them waving my arms frantically, and screaming, “BOLA! BOLA!” at the top of my lungs. Finally, the soldier at the checkpoint stopped a truck. The next thing we knew, we were all climbing in, even the guard. YES! We had a bola!!!

*****
(Pictures of the bola)
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=4a1are2.jpg

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=c76dre2.jpg&.src=ph
*****

The truck took us to another crossroads where they dropped us all off, even the soldier. Fortunately, there happened to be a guagua there that was driving the last ten miles to Barahona, so we hopped on that and it took us to Barahona.

Once there, we were all desperate to use an ATM because none of the 4 in Las Matas de Farfan had been working. For some reason, the Peace Corps wasn’t going to deposit our pay until later day, so even though we found an ATM, we had no access to our money. We knew if we couldn’t get money once we got to Pedernales, we would be screwed. It was the beginning of July, and all of us had spent pretty much all of our money from June’s meager payment. We embarked on our trip in a guaguagita to Pedernales not even knowing if we were going to have enough money to pay for everything once we got there.

We had the guaguagita take us to the only bank in Pedernales, where there was already a line of unhappy-looking Peace Corps volunteers. They had all been tying to get money and still couldn’t access it. So someone called into the Peace Corps office and asked when our money would be available. We were told it would be available at 10 a.m., which would give us just enough time to get money, find a super colmado to stock up on edibles for the weekend, and meet at the park at 11. We were set!

The truck ride to the docking point where we would take boats out to the private beach in the National Park was hot and long, but we made it.

*****
(Picutres of the truck and docking point)
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=9d14re2.jpg&.src=ph

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*****

We all crammed our stuff into boats that took us to the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Jenny and I promptly went to set up the tent that she had borrowed from her Dominican friend Wilken, and we realized it was missing one of the uprights. So we used it as a tarp and just laid our sleeping bags on top of it, sleeping under the stars that night.

*****
(Pictures of the beach)
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=7476re2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=6679re2.jpg
*****

We swam in the water, played on the beach, hung out, at our canned veggies and tuna for dinner, cooked marshmallows over the bonfire, and swam in the moonlight. It was definitely an awesome 4th of July!

The next day we were awakened at around 6 a.m. by rain. But within 20 minutes the rain cleared up and led to a beautiful rainbow. We hung out on the beach and swam in the water until the boats arrived to pick us up and take us back to the docking point. Of course I waited for the second round of boats that came to get us because I prioritized eating above getting back to the dock and boarding the bus first. And of course, it started POURING rain, thundering and storming when we were taking the boats back to the dock. Thus all of my things, and the things of those who had gone on the second boat trip with me, were soaking wet by the time we boarded the bus for the two-hour trip to San Raphael. Those of us who had been soaked in the boat ride also arrived to the dock to find there wasn’t enough room for us on the bus, so we stood in the aisle for the ride.

*****
(Picture of San Raphael)
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=29edre2.jpg
*****

Once we got to San Raphael about half of us stayed there for the night while the less adventurous and more tired went to the capital. The beach in San Raphael was a rock beach with a river feeding into it. The river actually fed into a natural pool and then into the ocean. It was gorgeous! And the waves were rocking! Not many beaches down here have waves, so Jenny and were pumped. And we definitely got knocked around when we were trying to come back inland. At one point, I was swept by an undertow, and I looked up to see Jenny’s foot sticking out of the water. We both were close to losing our bathing suits, but we lived to tell the tale.

That night we stayed in a pensión and had a kitchen to cook in. We made an omelet that we entitled “Colmado Delight” because we put in everything we could find in the colmado that seemed remotely as if it would taste good with eggs. We got spicy peppers, onions, canned corn, canned garbanzo beans, and garlic. It was delicious! The rest of the night, we just spent hanging out and playing “American” games. We sang the Star-Spangled Banner and talked about what we missed from America.

But the best part was the next morning when we went back to Barahona and had brunch. For a mere hundred pesos (a little less than $3 U.S.), I had a giant cheese-filled omelet and a papaya smoothie. I was in heaven! I caught a guagua from Barahona to Baní, and made it back to my site in the afternoon. It was a glorious fun-filled trip, and I am really excited to pass another 4th of July here, although this place really makes me appreciate America so much more than I ever thought possible.

*****
(Pictures of me eating my omelet!)
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=e0cere2.jpg&.src=ph

http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/detail?.dir=/f528re2&.dnm=37eare2.jpg&.src=ph
*****

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Saturday, July 1st, 2006
2:51 pm - The Times (and my address and telephone number) Are A-Changin'
Okay, so I’m going to start things off by saying that I now have a new cell phone number and a new address. The new cell phone number comes from the fact that the provider Orange doesn’t work in my site, and the new address comes from the fact the Peace Corps is now having everything delivered directly to the office in lieu of using a post office box. So here’s the new info, kids. Write it down, memorize it, keep it close to your heart, sleep with it under your pillow…I don’t care what you do with the info as long as you use it once in awhile. (As of my last trip to the capital, I still had no mail after being here for a month!!! Get on it, people!)

New Cell Phone:
(809) 723-9772

New Address:
Christina Luckett, PCV
Cuerpo de Paz
Avenida Bolivar 451
Santo Domingo, Distrito Nacional
República Dominicana (or you can write Dominican Republic)

I also have I forgotten to mention that I have gone through the rite of passage of every Peace Corps Volunteer: I have a parasite. When I was in the U.S., I had to give stool samples in order to get back here to the Dominican Republic, and in the stool samples, they found a water-bourn parasite. So that is why I was having all that intestinal distress back in March and April. The funniest thing about it is that the Peace Corps doctors said that I shouldn’t take anything to get rid of it because now it’s latent, and the antibiotics I would have to take to fight it would make me more sick that the parasite is making me (now that it’s latent). So, it’s like I have a little pet inside me…or something like that.

So, as I pass more time here, I am learning so many things—about myself, about the culture here, and about the trials and tribulations of living in a life to which one is not accustomed. For instance, about two weeks ago my family was slaughtering a chicken one Saturday morning. As the blood drained out of the chicken’s neck and filled our yard with a puddle that our puppy hungrily licked out of the dirt, I decided that I wanted to learn how to clean a chicken. So I told Yiya, my host mom. And she let me. We poured boiling hot water over the feathers and into a bucket, then we dipped the chicken into the bucket. After this process, the feathers were easy to pull out (except for the large ones on the edge of the wings and the tail feathers...they were really in there). Then we got to hack the thing up with a machete so we could refrigerate some of the chicken and have the rest for lunch. I was a little grossed out after the whole thing, but I am not going to lie. That was the best chicken I have ever tasted in my life!

Another thing I have learned is to always hold onto the rope very tightly when you are trying to draw water up from the cistern. The other night after my run, I was trying to bring up water so I could take a bucket bath. For some reason, I wasn’t paying attention and just threw the bucket down into the depths of the water (which is getting REALLY low since the water pumps that bring water from the next city over have been broken for a month). And along with the bucket, I threw the rope that was attached to the bucket. Now, sometimes I have trouble getting the bucket to fall into the cistern at such an angle that it will actually fill up with water. But as luck would have it, this time it tipped over and filled right up. I looked down in horror as the bucket started sinking to the bottom of the cistern. I panicked for a second. What was I going to do? My family would be so mad at me! (Or they would laugh at me and think I am a crazy gringa…but this time with reason.) How were we going to pull water out of the cistern if the bucket was in the cistern and the rope with which to pull it was in the cistern as well? Yeah. I didn’t have an answer, either.

I stopped, thought for a moment, and got a broom that was leaning against the side of the house. I stuck the broom handle down in to the water and hooked it under the bucket handle. However, this didn’t work so well. Though I tried with all my might, I just didn’t have the leverage to pull the bucket up from the angle I was at. Then I started to manipulate the rope with the broom handle, but every time I got it to a place where I might have been able to reach it, the rope would fall back in. I tried over and over and after about 7 attempts, I finally got a hold of the rope. Man, I was so glad no one from my family happened to come out to the yard and ask me what I was doing with a broom wrong-side-up peeking out of the cistern!

So, yeah, now you KNOW I hold that rope with a vice-like grip.

Being down here has not only given me myriad opportunities to learn, but also opportunities to teach. An example of this is explaining to Dominicans that there is more to the United States than “Nueva Yol,” which is how they say New York. Many of them refer to the United States of America as “Nueva Yol”, even though they do understand that New York is just a part of the United States.

However, there are others who think that Nueva Yol is all the U.S. is made of. I have had more people than I can count ask me where it is that I come from in Nueva Yol. (This is because, of the 3 million Dominicans that live in the United States, approximately 80-90% live in New York City in a barrio called Washington Heights.)

When I explain to these people that I come from Virginia, they get confused. Then I tell them that New York is only ONE state among FIFTY that comprise the U.S., and some are just dumbfounded. The best part is when I actually have my daily planner with me because there is a map of the U.S. in the back. When I whip that thing out, the are in serious shock. “Pero Nueva Yol es tan pequeño en relación a los Estados Unidos! ¿Hay cincuenta estados? ¿Y como?”

I also tend to describe Virginia as the state right next to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. This always gets people, too, because they all think Nueva Yol is the capital. But poco a poco I am teaching them, yes I am!

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Sunday, June 25th, 2006
12:55 pm - It's been awhile.
Well, it has been awhile since I posted. I have been busy trying to get to know my site and trying to show people that I am truly here to help. So, since school ended on the 14th of June, I have been working on various projects.

First, I helped to repaint the classrooms in the primary school where we have pre-school and kindergarten classes. Then I painted two murals over there, one of Clifford and one of Bambi. You can see pictures of the murals if you follow the link. I’m really proud of them, and everyone seems really impressed. I have plans to do more (which include but are not limited to) Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet hugging and one of Curious George. And if you know me at all, you know I am PUMPED about Curious George, my favorite monkey!!!

*****
Pictures of murals:
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/album?.dir=3b9ascd&.src=ph&store=&prodid=&.done=http%3a//pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/specialuvachristina/my_photos
*****

I have also been working on the literacy camps that I am offering in the last week of July and the first week of August. I will have forty kids in all, so I split it up in to twenty kids one week and twenty kids the next. I know that only one week of camp isn’t a lot, but I am just trying to get my feet wet and I don’t want to get completely overwhelmed. I am having an interest meeting 5 days before the camp, and if only a few people show up, I am just going to collapse the two groups in to one and hold the camp for two weeks for all the kids.

I am getting excited as it gets closer and I am getting more people on board. So far I definitely have Iza, who will be my co-teacher in the resource room, and Melissa, a 14-year-old girl who used to live here in Arroyo Hondo but now lives in the states. Melissa is visiting her family here for the summer and generously offered help, which will be awesome. She is bilingual, and even though I am feeling pretty strong in my Spanish skills these days it will be nice to have her as a back-up for quick translations.

I have also been working on just walking around and meeting people in the community. This is great because not only am I getting to know people, but I am also getting familiar with the parts of the community that I might be interested in living in when I am able to get my own house in two months…which I am EXTREMELY excited about!!! As much as I love having a family to live with to help me integrate into the community, to provide links to important people and meetings, and to support me in this whole transition, I am American at heart and value my privacy. Also, it’s just a strange dynamic to live with siblings and parents again. I am not used to people worrying about me when I come home late or when I don’t call just to check in. I shouldn’t complain, these things just show that they care. But I do have legitimate complaints: the greasy, salty food and the fact that my host dad and brother whiz on the toilet seat EVERY time they go to the bathroom. I want to say something about both of these issues, but I can’t. Really it ISN’T my house, I am a guest, and thus their comfort comes before mine.

I swear, though, they are trying to engordarme. Almost every morning, breakfast consists of fried eggs and tostones, or fried plantains. Now, I love a good batch of tostones and I even have them in the states sometimes, but they are deep-fried. Having them is like McDondald’s french fries for breakfast everyday. And those fried eggs, they are not like fried eggs in the states where you put some oil in a pan and cook the egg and flip it. Instead, they take a pot and fill it with two inches of grease, let it get to a good boil, and break the egg into it. Then, while the egg is cooking, they spoon more grease on top of it. Normally, I would use a napkin to try to sop up some of the grease, but to be honest napkins are a waste of money here—a true luxury. So we don’t have them. As a result, I feel like I am going to have a heart attack by the time I leave the breakfast table every morning. Oh, and the salt! I haven’t described the salt content yet. There are times where I can’t decline eating something even though the salt is stinging my mouth with each bite. So I just drink about three glasses of water to accompany my meal. This serves two purposes: it assuages the sharp saltiness in my mouth, making it slightly more palatable, and it hopefully dilutes the salt a little bit so it doesn’t all entire my blood stream.

The most frustrating part about all of this is that the average Dominican just has NO concept whatsoever about balanced nutrition and how to achieve it. They douse everything in salt and/or sugar, accordingly. Literally, when I have a “cup” of coffee (which is about three tablespoons of coffee in this country in a tiny little cup), they put at least two teaspoons of sugar! That’s as much sugar as I would put in a giant mug of coffee in the States.

If we have vegetables on any given day, it is usually only during lunch. We might have cucumber slices or tomato slices to accompany the rice, beans, and meat that we eat everyday. (Lunch is my favorite meal because me encanta rice and beans! But just take a guess about how the meat is ALWAYS cooked. It could be hotdogs, fish, ham, chicken…whatever. But, you guessed it, the meat is ALWAYS fried! Always!)

We rarely have a variety of fruit, though mangoes are always on hand because this area is the “mango capital of the world”. This was all fine and dandy with me because I love mangoes. However, I ate two a day for one week (since we always have an abundance of them in the house) and broke out in hives. So the doctors at the Peace Corps Office came to the conclusion that I am allergic to mangoes. I can get by eating maybe one or two a week. But any more than that, and my lips, face, and palms of my hands peel and I get hives on my neck, arms, and chest. So, no mangoes for me.

My host parents keep asking me why they are gaining weight and why they have high blood pressure. I want to tell them that it might be the ludicrous amounts of oil and salt they use in their cooking, but it wouldn’t change the way they eat, and I don’t want to offend them. It’s funny because they do things “for their health” that don’t make any sense. For instance, my host dad doesn’t eat chocolate because of his high blood pressure. But he drinks coffee, eats fried food everyday, eats food slathered in salt (and adds more salt!) and drinks alcohol. He said that his doctor gave him this advice about cutting out the chocolate, but I should hope a doctor would advise him on the other factors as well! Who knows?

Enough complaining. But now you might understand why I am excited about getting my own place and cooking for myself. But another motivation to get my own place is that I will get to have my own dog! YAY! For that, I can’t wait!

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Saturday, June 10th, 2006
4:33 pm - (I´m walking on sunshine.) And it´s starting to feel good!
Hey, ya’ll, I am getting adjusted. I know I sounded a little drastic and sad last week, and I was. But this past week, I hit my stride. I really started to click with my host family and feel comfortable in my school as well. Plus, the Asst. Directora of the school introduced me to all of the students last week during the morning and afternoon assemblies; so now everywhere I go, I hear children saying, “Christina! Christina!” I always try to find where the voices are coming from so I can say hello or respond with a wave, but sometimes I honestly see no children around. I guess they yell my name and hide, or something. But it makes me feel like people know me. I just need to work on getting to know everyone. Poco a poco, I will do it.

The people in my town are VERY friendly—some too much so.

A few instances of “nice friendly”:

1) As I was walking by their house to go to the Colmado to buy a phone card, the family across the street offered me lunch. I told them that I was going to eat lunch with my family, but that I could sit and talk for a little while. So I sat and talked and they fed me anyways, despite my insistence that I had lunch waiting for me at home.

2) I was invited to go to all of the kindergarten and preschool graduations, of which there were three. Each night, the children were soooooo adorable in their caps and gowns (red for girls and blue for boys). They had made the caps on their own in class with construction paper and yarn for tassels. I don’t know where they got the gowns, but they were all precious and the teachers and students were very appreciative that I came.

3) One of the teachers at the school, Surgida, invited me to her house for lunch. On the afternoon she invited me, I didn’t see her after school, so I walked home with another teacher, Aracelis, and checked out pictures of her family. Surgida sent her daughter to find me, which of course didn’t take long since I am the only Americana in the town. We went back to Surgida’s house and had an amazing lunch and shared an awesome time just chilling with her family and neighbors in rocking chairs under a huge tree in their front yard.

4) There is a woodshop at the school, which makes me ridiculously happy because it reminds me of L.K.S. and working in the woodshop there. The man who is the woodshop teacher, Julius, is Dominican but spent 20+ years in the United States. He loves to chat in English or Spanish, and he has a beach house in Las Salinas and has invited me to go with his family some weekend in the future.

A few examples of “not-so-nice friendly”:

1) Gallo is cobrador who runs one of the gua-guas that travels through Arroyo Hondo offering rides to from Bani to Villa Fundacion. He has apparently fallen for me. My host sister and I rode on his gua-gua last week when we were coming back from my e-mail trip to Bani. Since then, he has stopped by our house twice, and stopped his gua-gua in the middle of the autopista once when he saw me on a run. He was offering me a ride, which was nice. But CLEARLY I was on a run. Why would I randomly decide that I want a ride when I am out doing exercise? The attention just weirds me out because it is significantly more aggressive than anyone would act in the United States, unless they were a stalker. But it is normal here, so I guess I´d better get used to it.

2) This other dude who owns a house that is about one-and-a-half miles out of town had taken to watching me when I ran by his house. I used to find it a little funny because he never talked to me or made any harassing gestures. He would just stand there watching, ALWAYS wearing a pink tiny-tee with a sparkly angel on it. (He definitely got it from a American-clothes-donation-type-of-place and doesn’t realize that it is obviously meant to be worn by a teenage girl, but whatever…) But now it has changed from funny to insulting because the attention has manifested itself in his yelling inappropriate invitations at me as I run by. Even worse, on Thursday, I avoided his yells by running on the other side of the street. Then he had the audacity to follow me on his motorcycle, stop in front of the path I was running, and yell more inappropriate things at me. I had my mace with me and I would have used it if I needed to, but I ran around him, and he didn’t bother me after that.

And thus I think it’s time to find a new running route. This is a shame because I will miss the views of the mountains and the sea. :(

Right now, I am working on a Community Diagnostic. Each person has to do one in his or her respective site to assess the strengths, weaknesses, necessities, and resources of their site. So at the moment, I am assessing the school at which I work, Fe y Alegria de Cruce de Arroyo Hondo. (It is much like the project we did in my master’s program at UVA where we went to a Charlottesville school to assess their needs and figure out how to help them raise their SOL scores…except this time I am doing it alone instead of with a team, and I am doing it in Spanish.)

I am completing the school portion first, while school is still in session. I have done observations in each of the classrooms and collected questionnaires from each of the teachers. After school ends, I will focus on the community portion, in which I have to interview at least 100 households. I want to go all over and meet people from every barrio in the pueblo, but I think I will also solicit the help of a team of jovenes or high-schoolers to help me with the data collection.

All of the research will culminate in presentations in August. All of the Special Ed volunteers and the Information Technology Volunteers are going to get together to present what we have found about our various sites. Then we have to explain our respective plans for helping our sites. Yay! It’s like a thesis all over again!

But I actually enjoy research, so it’s all good. Plus, it’s giving me a great opportunity to meet my new community and build a great network here.

Okay, well, that is it for now. There are only three days of school left, so I will be working hard there, then enjoy two days of break before I commence the community portion of the diagnostic. Wish me luck!

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Saturday, June 3rd, 2006
11:08 pm - I´m baaaaaaaaack!!!
So, here I am after a month in the United States. I’m not gonna lie. The transition has been more difficult this time. Perhaps because I got to spend so much time with my cousins, godsons, grandmother, and parents; perhaps because I didn’t have the same experience of having waited for a year for this; perhaps because now I don’t get to see my other Special Ed compatriots in training everyday; perhaps because I was a little bitter at the Peace Corps for all the hurdles I had to jump; perhaps because I was thrown back into speaking Spanish after a glorious month in my native tongue; perhaps because I connected with some people on a very deep level while I was home. I don´t really know why it has been harder, but (DUH!) it´s probably a mix of all of these things.

My first days back were a whirlwind of meetings and presentations on safety, cell phone use, motorcylce use, medical facilities, my responsibilities as a Peace Corps Volunteer, extra volunteer groups within Peace Corps D.R. that we can join, etc. Then I was finally sworn in last Friday, May, 26 at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was cool because I was the only one there and the and the Director of the Country said that I was the first person he had gotten to swear in. All of the Special Ed Volunteers who are COSing in 2007 (meaning they only have one more year of service left) were there because they were in the capital for their one year In Service Training. So it was pretty nice to have all that support even though I didn´t get to swear in with my own training group.

After that I had a three-day-weekend to pass the time until I was being taken out to my site. Naturally, nobody was working in the Peace Corps Office on Saturday and Sunday to take me out to my site and introduce me to my Work Partner, my family, and my new school. But Monday was the celebration of Memorial Day. I was like,¨Dominicans celebrate Memorial Day? Who knew?¨ But the other volunteers told me that everyone in the office gets bot Dominican holidays and American holidays off from work. So of course the people in the Peace Corps Office get the Memorial Day off as well. Thus, I was stuck to find entertainment for myself. And I did.

The Special Edders and I all decided to go to one of their houses. We went to Mandee´s house in El Factor, a small town in the north of the island..and there was some intelligent reasoning behind this. All of the other volunteers except Samantha are on the fronterra, or the border to Haiti. Thus, it takes 5.5 to 6 hours to get there, and then there isn´t much to do on a weekend because it´s pretty dessert-like and really campo. Sam´s site is on the beach in Sabanna del Mar, but it´s too dirty to swim in. However, El Factor is ten minutes from Nagua, on the northern coast of the island. And thus we went Mandee´s because of clear and direct access to a beautiful beach.

After the weekend of beachin´it up, cooking American food, hanging out with amazing friends, and singing ridiculous Adam Sandler-like songs (including such titles as ¨It´s Only a Wee-Wee¨) from a REAL song book that Mandee had on her bookshelf, we all returned to the capital and went our separate ways.

My way, of course, led me to my new home in Arroyo Hondo. It´s a small town of 7,000 people (I think generously it´s more like 4,000, but 7,000 is what I am told...). There is no internet in the town. My Peace Corps-comissioned cell phone only functions in one corner of the porch outside my house and nowhere else in the town. The electricity goes out at 7 p.m. each night and comes on at 10 a.m. each day. (Fortunately my family has an inversor, so we still have electricity 24-hours-a-day.) We have one bathroom for six people and on-and-off running water. When there is no running water, I take bucket baths which is what it sounds like--splashing water on myself from a bucket with a cut up clorox bottle used as a scoop. The only thing that sucks about this is that it is really hard to wash my hair this way because I have to dip my head in the clorox thing to try to get as much of my hair wet as I can. Then I lather up, and rinsing just takes forever. When I have bucket bath days, I don´t even bother conditioning.

Which leads to a cultural thing here: I brought make-up with me down here since Dominicans are so conscious of their looks. I have been taught that I will get more respect in my job if I wear make-up, but so far I haven´t had the will power to do it. It´s just so hot! Why would I want to put an extra layer of stuff on my face only to melt off and make me feel stickier and grosser than I already would?? But I will try. Monday is a new day, and I will be brave and try.

Um, so I just checked weather.com to see how hot it actually is down here. For instance, today it is 89, but feels like 99 with the humidity. All day I have been thinking how cool it feels compared to how hot it has been the rest of the week. I live in a convection oven!

So maybe I won´t try the make-up on monday. We´ll see how that goes...

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