Saturday, May 29, 2010

27. Visit the Dominican Republic, Part I: Work Hard, Play Harder

Vibrant. That's my one-word impression of the Dominican Republic. Everything about it -- the colors, the language, the energy of the people, the gorgeous tropical vegetation, the mountains and the ocean, the baseball playing in the middle of the day in the middle of the street, and (especially)the dancing and the music -- feel so very animated and engaged. I think it's impossible to go and not feel a little more energetic, a little more willing to take a risk and a lot more alive. At least that's the way it felt for the 11 of us -- our leaders, Erin and Tom, graduating seniors Carolyn, David, Eireann, Joy-Anne, and Korinne, returning students Ashley, Kate and Mark, and me.

Incredibly, this was Tom's 15th trip to the Ocoa region, and Erin had also led a previous service learning trip last year. But for the rest of us, this was our first time in the Dominican Republic. Our main task this year was to help the community lay the foundation and start the construction of a new home in the wonderful mountain village of Los Palmaritos. We began and ended the trip in the city of San Jose de Ocoa (or just Ocoa), where both ADESJO, the NGO that coordinated our work project, and the Catholic mission of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph (RHSJ), where we stayed while we were in the city, are based.

In Ocoa we stayed in the lovely new guest quarters of the school complex of the RHSJ, which we referred to as the Ocoa Hilton after our seriously no-frills village accommodations. And we visited lots of places including: the hospital; some of Tom's many friends (the man's a local celebrity, and you can't walk down the street with him without running into someone with a new story about all the things he's done there); and the ADESJO office (whose staff will surely impose an emergency closing if I ever visit again, rather than submit themselves to another afternoon-long Q&A session with me posing questions on everything from the contested national elections that happened two days before we arrived to the status of Haitian workers on the coffee fincas).

Though we saw and visited many things in Ocoa, the heart of the trip was our stay in the small village of Los Palmaritos, which we travelled to on a twisty mountain road in the back of a truck. There, our headquarters was a small house crammed with twelve bunk beds (for the 11 of us, plus Santa, who skillfully transformed potatoes, yucca, plantains, the world's freshest mangoes and pineapple, and local chicken into piles of delicious food that we ate outdoors every day). There was no indoor plumbing, but the enormous spiders mostly got out of our way when we used the outhouse, and there was a hose that ran in the morning that we could use to conduct cold "showers" wearing our bathing suits outside, while the villagers who stationed themselves with us at all times looked on with amusement. While the spiders usually gave us some space, the rats did not, and nights turned into a running battle of humans versus ratones, with the rats scoring early on with some daring maneuvers that had everyone screaming their heads off, particularly when after some direct bed assaults in one of the girls' rooms, one made a showing inside of Joy's sleeping bag. Two nights later, though, Tom and I regained the upper hand with consecutive backhand swats that sent them flying into the night when they tried sharing our bunks with us. The saga of the rats, who remained immune to our efforts to first scare them (note to future groups: if using a cat, don't go with a kitten smaller than the rats themselves) and then poison them was the subject of much commentary at the work site, since our neighbors could easily gauge who was winning by the level of melodrama emanating from our house every night.

We were working with the villagers to build a house next door to one that was rotting so that the family could move. There was a skilled contractor and mason in charge of the project, and a number of other experienced volunteer builders who showed us how to do the work. First we helped dig the foundation by hand with pickaxes and shovels, and then lay some rebar support for the concrete that we carried up the hill from a truck, mixed by hand and poured into the foundation. Then the masons laid brick while the rest of us filled the spaces with mortar, and finally on the last day, the wooden studs for the upper walls went up. Some of it was pretty hard work, but since there was never enough equipment, we mostly worked in shifts, so we were fine.

Though the villagers worked hard, they knew how to enjoy themselves, and we learned that from them as well. While the work was going on at the site, there was usually also a baseball game going on in the street below (and Korinne turned more than a few male heads with her superior batting skills), and the three hour lunch and siesta break every day was an institution we quickly learned to love.

But the real highlight, for the people of Los Palmaritos as well as us, was at night after dinner when people of all ages headed to the small store/bar in the center of town and the music started. The drinks of choice were rum and El Presidente beer, bought in large bottles and shared all around in plastic cups, but it was really about the dancing in which everyone, regardless of age or skill level, was expected to participate.

During our stay our group talked a lot about how pictures couldn't begin to do our trip justice, but since that's what we have, here are a few. There's one group shot taken in the city park in Ocoa at the very beginning of the trip, and the other, also taken in Ocoa but at the end of the trip, was a toast at the home of Jesus, one of the many members of Tom's fan club. Each of us made our own connections in the DR,and for me my most special bond is with Yorkis. Here's one photo where he's mortaring blocks with Ashley and me (thanks, Carolyn, for sharing this and your other photos so quickly with the rest of us), and in the other he's teaching me to merengue. And finally, there's one more with Erin and Ashley dancing, as everyone did, with the children of the village.

I think I speak for everyone in saying that our time in Los Palmaritos was all that anyone can hope for in a travel experience. We all left a piece of our hearts there, in some form or other, and took a bit of Los Palmeritos with us as well.

52 Ways to Say I Love You

In Spanish (What else? But for this one I actually got to hear or say them all).

Hello Hola
Good by Adios
May I have two beers please? Dame dos cervezas, por favor. (Though in Los Palmeritos you usually don't get dos cervezas, you get a big bottle of El Presidente and share.)
I love you. Te quiero.

Coming Attractions

The trip to the DR pretty much kicked off the summer's travel. This week I have a conference in New Hampshire, then next week I'm headed to Tacoma to do a road trip to Idaho with my sister, brother in law, and niece, Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, and with luck will pull off another new thing, glass-blowing before we head out of town. Before I go west, though, I'm hoping to round up some people to do the Spring Camel's Hump hike today or tomorrow (Memorial Day), so if anyone's game, give me a shout SOON. I'll write a more complete list of summer new thing plans in a later post.


  1. How wonderful! I can't wait to read more. AND did I notice a change in your hair?

  2. Ew ratones! That is terrifying! And (whistles) I like that first picture. I'll see you soon!

  3. Well, well Trish, who’s the handsome stud in the first picture! (from his posture, you can tell he’s a great dancer) – The trip sounds soo lovely! I am glad you had a great time!

    And I hope we can continue the DR-sassiness this weekend! Can’t wait to see you.

    Ps: of course, you’ve got a great tan, I’m from the Mediterranean and I’m jealous! haha

  4. OMG! I just got back from Los Palmaritos on July 26th, and I know exactly how you feel. A part of my heart has stayed out there and I know I will never get it back, it belongs there with them. Our group spent a month out there and we built 3 cement bloc houses and renovated 2 houses in Los Corozos. :) Yorkis... What an awesome personality he has, he became a very good friend of mine during our stay.