Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's been a long time, I know. The PCs at the internet cafe in the closest town don't deal with the MAC to PC conversion, or maybe don't read Microsoft Word very well, or some other problem I don't understand prevents me from updating with pre-written entries. So updates will only be forthcoming from the capital. But here is a basic overview of what I have been doing lately.

My Site:

So my site, or the community in which I will be living for the next 2 years, is a municipality of 3 communities at the end of a carretera, or major dirt road. It is in the foothills above a pretty nice small city, though rather hot, humid and mosquito-y. It is gorgeous, as the mountains rise up on 3 sides of the community. Half of those mountains are very green and lush; that is where most of the agriculture in my community is located. The mountains on the other two sides are very arid, dry and almost desert-like. There are cacti in the hills leading up to those mountains. So these two very contrasting landscapes surrounding my primarily agricultural community will make for a very interesting environmental service. The entire DR, but my region specifically, grows lots of mangoes, which are in season right now, and avocadoes, which are not. However, in addition to the abundance of tropical fruit I consume, these 2 specialty products only increase my enjoyment of my location. I was initially very excited to discover that the raising of goats is also big in my region, until I realized that dairy is really not done here. Part of this could be due to the lack of reliable energy to keep it refrigerated, but either way, cows and goats are mainly raised for meat, rather than milk, cheese or yogurt, and the most common way to get milk is powdered in cans, or sweetened and condensed, courtesy of carnation. I usually get electricity for a couple of hours per day in my site, as well as running water for about an hour each morning. I have to say that I never really adapted well to bucket baths, so I arrange my entire daily schedule around running, and then showering with running water. This is also the best way to avoid mosquito bites while bathing.

After spending almost two months here, and really getting into my community diagnostic, I am excited to start working on some of the projects for which I was solicited: coffee production; soil conservation, composting, stoves, latrines, and public health. Meanwhile, getting to know my community has been a great experience so far. I realized that I haven’t actually lived in one place for 2 full years since high school, so this is a rather welcome change, although being the only gringa, or outsider of any kind, in a small town, always comes with challenges.

El Palo:

The people in my community love to dance. They will dance at least once a week at the local colmado (convenience store/social gathering place, which blares music for everyone in the neighborhood to hear whenever there is electricity. They also dance while doing chores in their houses, while socializing in the street, and at any other convenient time that strikes their fancy. This is mainly bachata and merengue, of the classico, tipico, and calle (street) varieties. Merengue de calle is also called mambo. A smattering of salsa adds variety. Since I arrived in my community during their patronales festivities, or patron saint celebration, I was thrown into the enthusiastic dancing culture of my community immediately. I can’t say that it was a huge problem. I enjoy dancing in my site, and they really like that I can dance their dances and sing along with their songs. It’s a great way to build that confianza that is so important. If you would like to feel closer to me by listening to the music I am inundated with for several hours a day and dance to a few times per week, look up the bachateros Antony Santos, Frank Reyes, Juan Luis Guerra, and Aventura. If Merengue is more up your alley, try El Lapiz, Omega, Marco Antonio Solin, and Don Miguelo.

Pretty soon after my arrival, I was introduced to the Palo. The palo is a religious song and dance, probably an amalgamation of African, Indigenous, and Spanish celebrations. It is done for Saints’ festivals and such, inside open-air chapels, usually private ones. However, it is general knowledge that the entire community, or whoever wants to, shows up, socializes, and some of the men play these large wooden drums called tambores. Often there is a tamborine, and I have yet to attend a palo without a Guira, which looks like a cheese grater. Only the men play (calluses on women would be unseemly), and the women usually sing and chant (though some men do as well). Both genders dance. It is a pretty simple dance, very rhythmic, that can be done solo or with a partner. It consists mainly of stomping, stepping, and various turns. But the rhythm of the music changes, and the dancers have to adapt to players. It’s a lot of fun, but also tiring in the hot sun. In a novena, this type of celebration goes on for 9 evenings, and then on the 10th day, culminates in a day-long celebration, where sancocho (Dominican stew) is served. I do enjoy the Palo, from a social as well as anthropological point of view. I am learning to dance it, and there are plenty of people who are excited that I want to learn and happy to teach me.

Dengue Fever:

Dengue Fever is a non-contagious sickness transmitted by mosquitoes and eondemic to the Caribbean. The natives call it “Breakbone Fever” because every bone in the body hurts the unfortunate person infected with it. It is characterized by a very high fever; pain all over the body; pain behind the eyes, and a splitting headache. Not long ago, I was the victim of this completely incapacitating illness. Dengue’s onset is sudden, so one Friday night, I was dancing away at a neighboring town’s patronales, and the next morning I had a 104 degree fever, pain all over my body, and was unable to get out of bed. Considering that there are many, many mosquitoes in my site, and I get several bites per day (if not more), I immediately suspected Dengue. Since my handy-dandy medical handbook said that treatment mainly involves control of the fever and rehydration (a fever in a tropical summer involves a lot of sweating), I took Tylenol and Ibuprofen, and drank copious amounts of freshly prepared juice. I was practically unable to eat, so finally, on Wednesday morning, my Doña insisted that I call the Peace Corps Medical Office, which I obediently did. They told me to present myself at their office in the capital that afternoon, so I managed to get out of bed, get dressed and pack a bag, then leave the house for the first time in almost 5 days. After blood tests and a stern talking-to by the lovely doctor, it was determined that I indeed had Dengue Fever. As consolation, I was put up in the luxury room of the pension that volunteers stay at, with air conditioning and a TV, courtesy of the Medical Office. And there I stayed for another 4 days, until I was deemed out of danger of fainting or bleeding to death (Dengue reduces the white blood cell count and platelets, which assist in blood clotting). At least I was able to sweat out my fevers in an air-conditioned room, and breaking the news of my affliction (and reason to be in the capital) brought lots of sympathy from fellow volunteers. When the telltale rash that signals the end of Dengue appeared, I was sent home, where my Doña and other people in my site were in denial that I could have gotten Dengue in their community. However, they tried to accommodate my last symptom, lack of appetite and sensitive stomach. I think they were happy that I could eat something again, even if it was just white rice.

In conclusion, Dengue Fever is a horrible, painful illness that lasts about a week. I do not wish it on anyone. Take your complex-B vitamins, and stock up on Deet mosquito repellent if you are coming to the Caribbean. Of course, now that I have recovered, I am happily working on my first project with the coffee growers.

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