Tuesday, June 18, 2013


I left the Dominican Republic about a month ago.  It’s obviously taken me some time to sit down and write about the end of things. 

It was time, in a lot of ways, though in others it was very difficult to leave.  I hate goodbyes.  My last week in Tabara was definitely bitter sweet – everyone was being so overwhelmingly wonderful and loving that I forgot all of the things that made me crazy on a daily basis.  Even the kids knew something was up.  They were extra cariñoso.  I lived with my house open for my last two days, giving things away, being farewelled over and over and over again.  They had been anticipating this for two years.  Almost since my arrival, everyone I got close to talked about when I would eventually leave.  And despite this hyper-awareness of the impermanence of my life there, everyone still seemed shocked when the day arrived.  It would have been easier to just say “peace out” and disappear, but I owed everyone a better goodbye than that.

We had a graduation for the students in the reading program, and a final motivational meeting with the teachers and facilitators.  The students kept saying “gracias Laura, gracias.” Even kids who weren’t in the program.  They probably didn’t even know what they were thanking me for, but I was teary.  

My site unfortunately did not receive a follow-up volunteer for this year, but my facilitators promise that they will continue the program without me, and the director and teachers fully support them.  This was the whole point.  I have complete confidence in their abilities; the real issue is logistics.  Will they be able to continue without someone there to replenish supplies and re-motivate every so often?  When a facilitator leaves the program to continue her own studies at university, will they find someone to take her place, and train that person as I trained them?  I told them to expect a call from me in September checking up on them.  They laughed and made me swear that I would really call.  If things continue, they might receive a new volunteer next year to continue where I left off.  Time will tell.

So, I said my goodbyes in the school, and to the neighbors, and to my host family and other friends.  These are not relationships that can be well maintained over the phone or Internet, but I am lucky.  Had I been placed in a different country, or even just in a different community, it would be a lot harder to go back and visit.  But I happened to be placed in a very accessible community, in a very accessible country.  It is just a three-hour plane ride from New York to Santo Domingo, and just a three-hour bus ride from Santo Domingo to Tabara Arriba.  Visiting is definitely not impossible.  I’ll go back sometime soon. 

* * *

Reflecting on the last two and a half years is kind of overwhelming.  There is no way to boil down this “experience” into a few stories, or a summarizing sentence.  But I will say that I couldn’t have spent the last two years of my life doing anything better.  This feeling varies among volunteers, among countries, and among projects.  Everyone’s experience is different.  Though a lot of time is spent sitting around and making mistakes, this time is a valuable learning experience, and it is only by going through the first year of frustrations that you can ever really arrive to a second year of successes (and more frustrations).  That’s assuming that you ever really achieve “success.”  A lot of volunteer successes are not measurable, and that’s ok.

Me and the elementary school teachers
Me and my facilitators (missing a few)
Me and the kiddos
Attempting a photo with certificates... fail
My facilitators learning to play jenga
My watchmen, Neno and Bombo

Two special kids, Bibi and Anjeli

 Facilitators with their students (these were clearly not taken by a professional):

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Beginning of the End

Saudade is a Portuguese word that doesn’t translate to English.  It pretty much means “the vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”  Something more than nostalgia.  I’m well acquainted with the feeling – the life and people you leave behind.  Even returning to the same place and the same people can never be the same, because you are different. 

When I’m here, it’s hard to imagine another life.  It’s not that modern conveniences have become a foreign concept to me – I’ve visited home a few times, and I’ve gone to nice hotels in this country too.  But the strange thing about the other life is how far away this one will become.  When I’ve been away, Tabara Arriba has felt so distant from my reality.  It is, in fact, distant from my other reality.  And not just Tabara, but the entire Dominican Republic – this loud, hot, beautiful island where I can hop on a passing bus and be across the entire country in a day if I so desire; where I feel connected to everything and everyone, even when I would rather tune out. 

Here, you realize how little you really need to live.  And how happy you can be that way.  The real difficulties over these two years have been psychological, not physical.  For one thing, it seems that my immune system is super-human, and I haven’t really been sick, as a lot of others have.  So that’s lucky.   But also, while electricity and running water are really great, not having them all the time isn’t the tragedy you imagine it to be.  (Well, not having water can be tragic, obviously, but gracias a Dios that’s not the situation where I live.)  It’s just like… camping sometimes.  I love my little blue house and my bucket showers.  Of course it will be nice to return to conveniences, but I like camping too.  Keeps you on your toes.

There are a lot of things that I absolutely will not miss about this country, and yes, I am beyond ready to get out of the campo.  But there are countless things that I will miss.  26 months of my 27-month commitment have passed.  Until recently, I didn’t spend much of that time thinking about the future.  This is a great thing.  Not thinking about the future does wonders for one’s happiness in the present, not to mention presence in the present.  When I started this crazy adventure it felt never-ending, but here it is: The End.  Almost. 

So, it’s time to start planning next steps, even while I am still here finishing things in town.  Word has gotten out that I’ll only be around for another month, and people keep lamenting that my boyfriend isn’t from Tabara so I’ll come back to visit.  I promise them I will be back, of course I’ll be back, but some other Americanas have set a bad track record.  I think they’ll believe it when they see it.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Strikes, the usual

Cesarito and Pedro are really proud of this blue car.  I don’t know when or how it was acquired, but now it can usually be found parked in front of my house, full of pan de agua and biscochitos to be sold at Neno’s colmado.  The windows are tinted, the dashboard ripped out, and the seat covers hide who knows what God-awful upholstery underneath.  At night, when the jóvenes set up their empanada stand on the sidewalk by my front door, and the girls borrow books off my shelves to read by the light of one bare bulb outside the colmado, Cesarito and Pedro lean against the car and the rest of the men settle into their plastic chairs on the sidewalk.  There they discuss the same three topics and continue the same game of casino, voices rising to the same tempo night after night. 

Nothing ever changes.  This blue car is notable for its newness.  (I mean the fact that it wasn’t here before.  It’s probably as old as I am.)  What happens on my street, and on the next one over, and throughout the whole town, is what’s been happening here forever, and what will continue to happen until the end of time.  At least that’s what it feels like.  This puts my presence here in perspective.  No wonder I’m so special.  I came in two years ago and interrupted the never-ending routine with curiosity and enthusiasm and books and ideas… all of which have gotten less novel with time.  Imagínate. 

The motivation that I felt with my teachers a few weeks ago has already given way to countrywide strikes for higher teacher pay.  School is now just two hours in the morning, and two in the afternoon.  Truthfully, it was only three hours before, so I wouldn’t say that there’s all that much of a difference, except that there is less order than usual.  If that’s even possible.  So forget teacher training for the moment.  My reading program marches on, but everything is affected by the ambiance of the school, the mood of the teachers.  Among the many frustrating things about the joke that is the Dominican public school system, strikes are really just icing on the cake. 

I spent last week wilting in my house because there was no school at all, not even two hours, and I had nothing to do but hang out with the kids in my backyard and suffer a slow, painful death of boredom and lack of purpose.  Ok, that’s a little melodramatic.  But at this point, I swing between complete desperation to be out of this country town and a premature nostalgia for the beauty around me here.  Sometimes I love everyone fiercely, sometimes I feel kind of hateful.  When you’re in a moment, it’s hard at times to remember ever feeling any differently.  When you have a horrible headache, you wonder if you’ll ever be comfortable again.  When you’re healthy, sickness is just a bad memory.  That’s what they say about childbirth, isn’t it?  You forget.  Otherwise, no woman would have a second child.  (Or, here, a sixth, seventh, tenth…)

But just when I think I can’t take it anymore, I’m reminded of some of the lovely, unchanging things about Tabara Arriba.  A few nights ago I had a friend here who had to leave on the last bus passing by from the capital.  The motoconchos we called never arrived, and it was getting down to the wire to get us to the highway… I called for the blue car.  Cesarito and Pedro were so happy to do me a favor.  Like, literally just glad that I asked them to do something for me. 

This reminded me of the night I discovered that the horrible smell I’d been unable to identify for days was a dead rat, electrocuted by the jerry-rigged wiring system in my house.  I ran out into the street, dry heaving and eyes watering with the horror of finding that lifeless beady eye in the dark upper corner of my bedroom wall, and begged them to come help me.  No need to ask twice.  Don’t worry about rat juices running down the walls, or the rotting smell of rat flesh four days later – these guys are just happy that I asked them to help me out.  A la orden to save the day.

Compared to that, pulling themselves away from the scintillating rooster debate happening over that never-ending casino game really isn’t too much of a chore I guess.  Especially if it’s to drive the Americana down to the highway in the car they’re so proud of. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fiesta de Palos

Last Sunday was the Dia de la Virgen de la Altagracia, and my neighbors had a rockin’ fiesta de palos all day long.  They pulled out the big drums and the shakers and that merengue grinder thing, and the music was bangin’ while the players got progressively drunker on homemade moonshine and rum.  Of course I danced in their kitchen, to the delight of all my rooster-fighting compadres. 

Between sweaty midday palo dances, I was fed arroz con leche, painted the little girls’ nails with blue sparkles, sat under my mango tree with the muchachos to talk about love and fidelity (aka. why they shouldn’t have five girlfriends at a time), and lent my guitar to some drunk guy because he claimed he could fix the messed up high E tuner (he didn’t really fix it, but somehow made it playable for the day).  We sang outside on the boulders in my yard until all the rum breath and enamoraring gazes got to be too much for me and I had to shut it down.

The palos played strong into the night, but at a certain point I was done.  I have to admit that over the last few months I’ve participated less and less in Tabara’s daily life.  I stay in my house much more than I used to, I leave as often as possible on the weekends, I’m less hospitable to those who show up at my door unexpectedly.  During my first year, I left my door open.  I went to parties, church, community events.  I hung out on the street in a plastic chair, went up to the mountains with my neighbors, talked to everyone.  I shelled beans and deveined tobacco leaves.  I shared my Spanish movies and let kids color in my house until 9 PM.  I had a yoga class and went walking with a group of women, even though I really just wanted to run alone.

It worked.  I am a member of this community.  I have a successful project and lots of enthusiastic project partners – I’ve lost one facilitator who finally got a teaching job in the school, but gained three new ones who are excited to work with the kids.  So now my reading program is going strong, with seven facilitators working with eighty kids!  And ever since I took the principal to the Escojo Enseñar conference, he’s super motivated and wants to change the whole school.  I led my first teacher training with twenty teachers yesterday!  I have no illusions that I’ll revolutionize the place over the next few months, but some motivation is definitely a step in the right direction.

I understand everything here more than I once did, and with that understanding comes more tolerance about some things, and less about others.  I understand the difficulties of the teachers in the school, all that they are up against, and I am much less judgmental about the state of their classrooms than I once was.  I also understand when someone is crossing the line, and have no tolerance at all for a drunk man trying to serenade me with my guitar…  Which happens more often than you might think.  It’s not cute.

So, two years later, I no longer feel the need to participate in everything, or be social when I don’t really want to.  I love to dance, but these campo shindigs never really deliver.  At least not for long.  Even so, sometimes participating is a lot more fun than the alternative.  Everyone needs a reminder sometimes.  Nothing like incessant drumming and dancing in the streets to get me out of my house. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Escojo Enseñar

Make a list of the things you do in a day.  Start every sentence with “I have to…” 

I have to wake up early.
I have to go for a run.
I have to take a shower.
I have to prepare materials for my students.
I have to go to the school.
I have to observe my facilitators and monitor their work with the kids.
I have to cook lunch.
I have to meet with the principal and teachers.
I have to write.
I have to clean my house.
I have to visit my host family.
Now, replace the words “I have to” with “I choose to.”

I choose to wake up early.
I choose to go for a run.
I choose to take a shower.
I choose to prepare materials for my students.
I choose to go to the school.
I choose to observe my facilitators and monitor their work with the kids.
I choose to cook lunch.
I choose to meet with the principal and teachers.
I choose to write.
I choose to clean my house.
I choose to visit my host family.

Now, replace the words “I choose to” with “I have the good fortune to.”

I have the good fortune to wake up early.
I have the good fortune to go for a run.
I have the good fortune to take a shower.
I have the good fortune to prepare materials for my students.
I have the good fortune to go to the school.
I have the good fortune to observe my facilitators and monitor their work with the kids.
I have the good fortune to cook lunch.
I have the good fortune to meet with the principal and teachers.
I have the good fortune to write.
I have the good fortune to clean my house.
I have the good fortune to visit my host family.

I feel a big difference between saying "I have the good fortune to go for a run" and "I have to go for a run."  Thank God I'm able to run.  Everything is your state of mind.  Your actions are a choice.  It's only through our own luck that we are able to live in this world and have the opportunity to make it better.  Don’t be trapped in “I have to.” 

* * *

This weekend, we finally held a teacher training conference for teachers and administrators from our sites.  It was the most stressful and professional conference I’ve done, and though a lot seemed to fall apart as we came down to the wire, everything came back together again throughout the conference.  We had workshops on classroom management, student-centered learning, critical thinking, working with parents, and didactic materials, with the overarching goal of creating a culture of achievement… where there currently is none. 

The teachers soaked up the information, and left for their communities promising to multiply it with their colleagues.  This will hopefully mark the beginning of a series of trainings I’ll do with the teachers in my site.  I predict that my last months in Tabara Arriba will be the most productive of my entire service.

Shout out to Jackie Iloh for her awesome motivational activity at the end of the conference!  Escojo Enseñar means “I choose to teach.”  The initiative aims to give teachers more tools, support, and motivation to do better in their classrooms.  Replacing “I have to” with “I have the good fortune to” really changed everyone’s frame of mind.  I hope it sticks.

The whole group of volunteers, teachers, and principals

My charla on learning styles

Participants making didactic materials

Sunday, January 6, 2013


I arrive around dusk, when the sun still setting behind the mountains makes everything glow yellow.  It’s all beautiful.  Through a smudged window I see Joaquin jump on his motorcycle, last in the row of them parked under the mango tree.  He drives out to meet me as I extricate myself from the crowded bus, a big smile spreading across his face when he sees who he’s picking up.  Merengue is in the air and I am still laughing from the last moments there – the familiarity of everyone I meet. 

“Vaya con Dios, rubia!” My tiguere seatmate of the last three hours bids me farewell. Go with God, blondie.   I smile and lift my chin – the least amount of effort necessary to acknowledge our new friendship (based on sharing our snacks from the rest stop and trying not to elbow each other) – as I let myself and my bags be passed down the steps of the guagua and onto Joaquin’s waiting motorcycle. 

Ya,” I say once I’m settled on the back. Vámonos.”  We ride up the mile road into town, past green fields and banana trees, cows grazing, the town cemetery and the aqueduct, past the school and through the pebbly river, greeted by the kids and the men bathing there, avoiding narrow collisions with other drivers.  I notice a few colorful new paint jobs on old cement walls, and some new clothes on my neighbors.  ‘Tis the season.  They look up, surprised to finally see me after a three-week absence.  ¡Llegaste!” They yell.  You arrived!  Madel and Luz drop their jump rope and run to my door as I get off the moto, grabbing my legs and giggling their greetings.  Bombo crosses the street from the colmado to hug me hello; Neno smiles and waves from where he sits on the curb beside his wife, knee-deep in guandules.  I drop my things inside, shoo the girls out, and take a very cold bucket bath – which is not nearly as pleasant now, in January, as it is when I can barely breathe from the heat.  Tomorrow I’ll warm my water on the stove. 

After I’ve washed off the travel grime and greeted some more neighbors, I head up the street to my host family’s house.  The length of this walk depends on who I run into along the way, and now I end up lingering every few yards:  Yes, I had a wonderful time in America.  Yes, my family is doing well.  Yes, it’s very cold.  Of course I missed you!  I finally round the corner and hear a little voice yelling my name.  Helen, my host sister Sami’s five year-old daughter, is jumping up and down in front of the house (probably anxious to know what I brought her).  My other host sister, Caroline, is sitting on the rocking chair out front with a little bundle in her arms.  Her belly was about to burst when I left, but now Camila is here, born just last week!

I have gifts to distribute and pictures to show, a baby to meet and more friends to find around town.  My house is just as I left it, my people just where I left them.  Coming back is nicer than I thought it would be. 

* * *

I didn’t really want to come home to Tabara – after two weeks in the U.S. with my family, and another week celebrating with my fellow volunteers in Santo Domingo and at the beach in Cabarete for New Years, the prospect of the campo really wasn’t all that appealing.  I’ve lived in this country for almost two whole years, and as much as I’ve loved (almost) every minute of it, it’s nice to be somewhere where people don’t stare at me.  It’s nice to be with family and friends and not have to think about anything else – just what delicious food we might eat and what fun things we can do today.  Even after two years, being the only Americana in the campo can still be exhausting.

It’s hard to believe, but I only have four months left in Tabara Arriba.  Luckily, January is the best time here.  There’s a nice breeze in the air.  I don’t sweat much…  It’s lovely.  I’m already swinging between nostalgia and relief, and I’m not even gone yet.  

Monday, December 24, 2012


"Experience, travel - these are an education in themselves."  - Euripides

A few weeks ago I took two of my girls to the Brigada Verde (Green Brigade) Southern Conference.  The conference is organized by environment volunteers and focuses on environmental issues and appreciating the world around us.  We went to see some awesome local caves, stargazed, sang around a campfire, and talked about how things are falling apart and what we can do in our communities to educate and mobilize people.  I think this has been my favorite youth conference yet – this group of Dominican teenagers was just awesome.  Very mature, very interested and interesting.  I was so proud of my girls – two 15-year old neighbors who have participated in a lot of my activities in Tabara, and who have also simply been friends during my time here.  It is an amazing feeling to watch another person live up to the potential that you see in them, to be able to give them an opportunity that they would never get otherwise.  These girls would never be able to leave their community for a weekend, meet kids and other American volunteers who live around the country, see new places, talk about new ideas…  open their minds with new experiences!

I’ve traveled a lot.  I’m still missing some regions, but between visitors from America, Peace Corps adventures, conferences, and just visiting friends who live around the country, I’ve seen a good portion of the Dominican Republic.  I’m probably the only person in my community who has.  A lot of kids have never been any farther than Azua (the pueblo 20 minutes away from Tabara).  Most people have been to the Capital at some point, but Santo Domingo is not exactly a beautiful experience.  To live on such an amazing island, with mountains, rivers, lakes, beaches upon beaches upon beaches, desert, forest, and every other ecosystem, and never be able to see any of it… That’s the situation for a lot of Dominicans.  Many have never been to the beach, and there’s one half an hour away from my town.  No one I know can swim.    

Meanwhile, Dad, Dan, and Cari came to visit two months ago and we saw three extremely diverse parts of the country in the space of a week!  We spent a few nights in the Colonial Zone in the Capital, they came to Tabara for a night, and we traveled up to Samana, the awesome peninsula in the northeastern part of the island.   It was a great trip.  I have an amazing time hosting my family and friends from America and being a tour guide to this country, but I wish I could do the same for Dominicans – bring them to America and show them my country, take them to my mom’s house for dinner (my host mom, Victoria, has fed each and every one of my visitors), take them to the beach, to the city… the way I bring Americans here and show them my town, the city, the beach.  This exchange does more good than I even realize at the time.  People here will be talking about all the Americans they’ve met through me, maybe forever.  No one has been forgotten yet anyway.  And the more they interact with each other, the more each side understands the other…

I’m not sure what direction my life will take in five months, when I finish my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (!), but I know that I love the feeling of providing opportunities for other people, and watching them live up to my expectations.  They usually do.

Dan chillin' in my hammock

Dad and Cari following my host dad through his tabacco field

On the way to Samana

Me and my girls, Lisandra and Estefi, in our cabin at the Brigada Verde conference