Written Saturday, March 5, 2011
It’s been three days since I’ve been in the DR, and I’m enjoying myself. I miss home. But I realize that I can’t ever really go back to the way things were. I can already see that I’m going to change through this experience. The difference between living in Latin America through the Peace Corps and simply doing it on my own is that I’m expected to integrate into the Dominican culture. This doesn’t mean that I have to be “cien por ciento dominicana” (100% Dominican, as they say), but this does mean that I have to blend in with the locals. This blending in serves two purposes: (1) It makes me a more effective volunteer, and therefore means I’ll make a greater and better impact on the Dominican communities , and have more to take back with me from them to the United States upon my return. (2) It keeps me safer. Because if people can readily sense that I’m a foreigner, or that I’m out of place, this makes me more vulnerable. As a Black American, I find it easier to blend in with Dominicans than my White American counterparts obviously because of how I look, but also I find that there are many similarities between African American culture and Dominican culture (among others, we’re both pretty loud J). As a believer, my task in light of my Peace Corps duties is to blend into the culture while at the same time, not being subject to the culture of this world. This will require some balancing.
On day two in country, I met my host family. They’re really great. Doña Marisol, my “mom,” is 38, and has an “esposo” (I put quotations around that because he’s really her boyfriend, but often times in Latin America they call your committed boyfriend your husband). He doesn’t really live here, but he comes here a lot. I have two younger sisters, ages 12 and 10 (this is cool, because I’m the youngest in my family and have never had younger siblings). Up until yesterday (Friday), they both had natural hair. I thought, “Aww, this is great! Is their mom going to keep their hair nautral??” I told the older girl how beautiful her hair was, and that my hair was also natural, she said her mom’s hair was natural too…which I couldn’t tell, because her mom has a sew-in! (This is very rare, as most Dominican women are obsessed with having straight hair.) Well, yesterday, Doña Mari put some type of perm in her hair (she said her hair was “alisado”). I was hopeful that they’d keep her hair natural, but I guess permanent hair straightening in the Dominican Republic is as much of a rite of passage as it is for young Black girls in the U.S. After Mayte (the oldest girl) came back home with her hair permed, Doña Mari put foundation, eye shadow, and lipstick on her. “Ay! Mira la mujerita,” (Look at the little woman) I commented—in my best Domincana nasal tone of voice, no less. And while I said, “Ay, nooo…” after Mayte said it was permanent, I told her that her hair looked beautiful both ways, as it does.
On my first night with my family, we watched a Christian video on some girl’s testimony of heaven and hell. To be honest, I’m never sure what to make of those types of books and testimonies. Clearly, God is capable of giving people these sorts of visions, and that’s not to say that he wouldn’t, but I always wonder if they’re real or not. Regardless, I do believe in heaven and hell, and that we each can choose one way or the other. I was glad though, that my host mom was interested in such material. With the natural hair, and the Christian content, I felt in good company with my family, and really grateful to God for being placed with them.
Something I wish were different: THE WATER!!! And this is just something I’m going to have to get over. So, I have no running water in my house (well…I think actually the water “comes,” it just hasn’t come since I’ve been here). This means that I’m having to forget everything I once knew about brushing my teeth, using the bathroom (numbers one, two and three—ladies), taking a shower and washing my hair, and replace it all with a new way of thinking. Woo woo woo. So, yesterday I had to take care of some business (you know), and had to pour a bucket of water in the toilet in order to flush it; apparently, I had never actually flushed a toilet all these 26 years, I’ve only pushed down a toilet handle which actually did the flushing for me. And we have an “if-it’s-yellow-let-it-mellow-if-it’s-brown-flush-it-down” rule so that’s been interesting to say the least. Showering hasn’t been so bad, because I’ve taken bucket baths before, but they are a little different, because I have to manage the water I use a lot more carefully. Despite all this, Dominicans keep themselves very clean. I’m learning how to get on that level though, because while I’m clean, being a germiphobe, I don’t feel as clean as I’d like to. It seems like a lot of other volunteers have running water and that I’m only one of a couple that is in this boat, but hey, what are you gonna do? Plus, I really like my host family.
I think I’m going to have to come out of my shell a bit more though. I think Dominicans can be a bit offended if you refuse what they offer you (particularly food), and I’ve refused quite a few things (to me it doesn’t feel like it, but I think it may to my host fam). First coffee. This is an everyday Dominican staple, and I don’t really touch the stuff. It just really serves no purpose in my life. Then there’ve been some meals that my mom has prepared that I’ve not been too fond of, and others that have had tomatoes in them (which I’m allergic to). So in some cases I’ve had to really just suck it up and eat it anyway (like last night’s mashed potatoes and fried eggs with onions, but I was hungry, and it was food, so I ate it). I have to remember something that was said in training yesterday, a lot of these folks don’t have much, so when they offer you food or drink it’s not just the sustenance they’re offering, they’re offering you a relationship in essence. “Okay, Laila,” I pepped myself, “the next thing she offers you, you take it.” So last night my mom said they were going to hang out with family and have a few drinks, and she offered me to go with them. So I said yes. I got dressed and we stepped out. We came to this dance spot, “Cool,” I thought, “I love merengue!” Only they really only played like five merengue songs, and they mostly played reggaeton (which I hate…not so much the musical style, but how they dance to it—just grinding). So my boredom with the reggaeton + with how tired I was from not really having the chance to rest since being in country = Laila falling asleep in this dance spot. Yep, right there on a bar stool with the loud music playing and people reaching over me and everything. By now it was about 1:30a.m. and I was super ready to go home and get in the bed but my doña and her sister were still lively.
My doña and her sister (uh…my aunt?) woke me up twice, picking on me for falling asleep, and the second time, I thought I’d step out for some air. “Why are there so many people outside?” I wondered when I got outside. “Aren’t you guys tired?” I rhetorically asked the crowd in my head. Across the street I saw one of those kiosk things that sell everything fried, so I went into the restaurant and got some chicken fingers and tostones. The guy selling the food started flirting with me when he noticed me struggling with my 1:30a.m.-Spanish, so when he asked me where I was from, I told him Belize so he wouldn’t ask me to marry him for a visa. (I know, I know, the whole reason why I’m here with the Peace Corps is to rep the U.S., but we were one of only like three in the restaurant, so my safety/peace of mind was my primary concern at 2am.) He didn’t charge me for the food. But when he bought me a free Presidente (beer), I was sure to politely refuse. Soon afterwards, my doña came in and said that her husband had been walking the streets looking for me. She spoke to the guy at the restaurant, whom she apparently knew, and after we left that restaurant, she warned me to not trust that “viejito loco.”
This morning there were a butt load of ants having a bash in our kitchen, and then (drumroll)…………… a mouse dashed from behind the stove to a small nook in the wall, as if wearing a T-shirt that said, “Welcome to the tropics.”