Tuesday, April 8, 2014

5 Valuable Life Lessons Learned as a PCV

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are the driver, the passenger and the whiny children in the back of a long road trip. You guide yourself, you make decisions, you have days when all you want to do is whine and wonder why you are here. These are moments that amount to lessons – tid-bits of wisdom that you will forever live by.

As I come up on 365 days in my site (my second site, after a site change) and bump into the COSers leaving this week I find myself reflecting a lot on this past year of service. It has been a life changing year and one of personal growth and change in more ways than I could even have time to describe on here.

I want to share some life lessons that I have learned in the past 20 months, especially in the last 365 days.

Always fight for what you believe to be right

To get to where I am today I had to fight fire with what felt at the time like 37.6 gallons of  water. On more than 5 occasions I have luchar’ed (literally translated to “boxed” as in boxing match) to shape my service into what I wanted it to be. I have fought against policy, cultural barriers, taboo perceptions and a lot of misguided ignorance to get to where I am. I fought to bring Health Education to a rural site where no health education had gone before. I fought against peace corps to get in. I fought against misconceptions of others to be happy. I did all of this because I understand the importance of following your heart over logic. In today’s world it is easy to get carried away with doing things the way everyone else does because it’s easy and the path has been carved. Learning to find the courage to take the unbeaten path was the best thing I have learned how to do here.

You are stronger than you give yourself credit for
Our weaknesses lie in our fear – conscious or subconscious. As a Peace Corps Volunteer you are forced to face fears you didn’t even know you had. You are told to lead a commission meeting and structurally reorganize a commission you know nothing about – no questions asked, do it. You are forced to be “the one that doesn’t belong” for 2 years  - eventually you adjust. You must eat what is put in front of you for fear of offending the only possible allies in your community. You must travel to places unknown and trust your instinct on getting there. You are forced to attend rituals such as funerals, weddings and baptisms while feeling completely awkward because you are the only one not participating – no one told you how to act or do.

There comes a point where you stop feeling like you should know what you’re doing and you start realizing that because you aren't native it is okay for you to continue to stand there, with poise and confidence, and know that your presence says more than any “acting” could.

You’ll look less like a stranger if you just go with it

When you are thrown into an event with resistance you are showing that you A. don’t want to be there, B. don’t want to participate or C. don't really care to integrate.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer one of the biggest skills we learn is to just go with the flow – if and when you do, your integration level will be amazing! If you are pulled out to dance, do it. If you are told to attend a 9 day grieving event for someone who died, just go.

Never throw yourself full throttle into an idea

Those of you who know me know very well that this is what I have always done – I now see that to do something well we must always wait for the right moment to implement the next step of our idea. Nothing can be developed full the way you envision it unless you give it time.

You are the creator of your own destiny

We all base our decisions on our own life experience and how they have helped us move forward or backward in life. Because of this we tend to agree and not agree with others’ choices and lifestyles.  On paper, it makes sense to calculate carefully how to live a “good” life. However, what I have learned is that you cannot deny the feeling you get about something. If you feel that there is injustice in the world and are unable to sit tight without doing something about it – do it! Just because logic and reason are what distinguish us from other mammals does not mean we still don’t have their instinct. Follow your heart and you will live a happy and peaceful life knowing that the decisions you made, you made for you and nobody else.

Every decision that you make and its result will influence any upcoming forks in the road you must choose to follow or avoid.

So, I ask you this….You’ll be the only one going through your reel at the end – how do you want to feel when you’re watching it?

Monday, February 24, 2014

graduation, getting robbed, and working with american high schoolers....

Past few weeks have been incredibly hectic - I went from having no schedule for the next few months and trying to figure out what my projects would look like at site, to having my calendar full until the beginning of August...Ay Mi Madre...


    10 months, a lot of charla prepration, continuous self-motivation and constant teaching - the moment came when these women went from students to being teachers themselves. Our graduation took place on February 9th and all the women brought something for our potluck and everyone brought one or two people. It took place in the backyard of my project partners house with a beautiful view and us all sitting under a mango tree! I gave them each a diploma, a first aid kit fully equipped with certification stickers for the homes they certify on their home visits, a blood pressure machine and stethoscope and a thermometer. It was beautiful and incredibly relaxing to know that Mondays I could now relax.

Since i don't have pictures - this is what the certificates given look like!

Typically, I would post pictures - I took A TON  BUT I was robbed about two weeks ago and no longer have my iPhone.

 The moment it happened - nothing was registering - I was not hurt I just go a burn from trying to hold onto my purse. I NEVER go out with a purse full of anything to go get lunch - I usually take the exact amount of what I need in cash. My favorite Nepalese purse was yanked and I immediately screamed and ran after the moto who drove away quicker than I could even blink. My cell phone, iphone, whole wallet, Larimar rings and sentimental things were all in there. I went back to the PC office with my wonderful friends who accompanied me the whole way and tried to start canceling everything and figure out how I was going to travel for the next two weeks in country without any money (there was a lot of cash in there). Luckily Peace Corps is amazing and made it all a smooth transition.

I went to the police to file a report and I felt like I was in a place where a bunch of bored adults play "house" but instead of playing house they are playing "police station". No one was organized, only a couple people knew how to write and what the procedure for a robbery was. It was in the moment when I remembered the lack of faith and hope that I have for Dominicans living here and trying to better themselves as contributing members to society.

The government and politics here is so corrupt that the wheels of the DR will forever be stuck and will never have traction. It was this day that confirmed all of this for me - it makes me sad for the future of this country and the options of development (or lack thereof) that it has.

The day after this happened I went and gave  presentation to the newest group of health volunteers - this was great - to get to know them all but also reminded me of how much I have done with my women - even if sometimes I feel like I havent.

I spent Valentines Day with a group of them eating pizza and drinking beer! It was perfect!

That weekend I went to an Island off the DR called Isla Saona - it was a beautiful surprise for Valentines day and had a blast doing something so touristy - especially after getting robbed.

a Diet Coke in a Can in DR?!?? so exciting!


Isla Saona

Isla Saona

Post tourist trip I headed up to the mountains in the north with my good friend Kate ( a fellow New Englander). I signed up to translate for a group of high school kids who are on their February vacation doing service work - building a clinic in a community near another Peace Corps Volunteer. I was so excited to have such good Quality Tie with my fellow PCV friends too! This expirience proved to be incredibly insightful - I learned how much I have adapted to Dominican culture, simplified living conditions, and general tolerance of constant uncomfortable situations. Everytime a student was complaining or expressing general frustrations I found myself explaining why the culture is this way or that although it is normal to get frustrated because sometimes our American culture doesn't allow us to be uber-flexible with time, or rules, we are working in another country and need to adapt.

This reminded me of how lucky I feel to have the opportunity of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. This is something I think only other PCVs will understand but I have learned that most things in life are just not worth stressing over. That sometimes taking an extra 10 - 15 minutes to just say hi to neighbors and be late for a meeting is worth it. Not having the exact ingredients for a meal you wanted is okay...another day it will happen. Not having service means a couple days of not being able to work or talk to family. Cohabitation with other critters is what we signed up for so that's why when we see one, we no longer freak out. My outfit doesn't match? eh...whatever. We understand that if it doesn't get done today, then we'll do our best to get it done tomorrow and fully accept it. Weren't able to pay rent on time? Send the money with a muchacho tomorrow, or maybe the next day.

    This is what life has become for me and I didn't realize how much of it I have adopted into my lifestyle until the past week that I spent with the high school students. It gave me great perspective on where I am at with my service!


Getting back from the week of beautiful mountains, fresh air, good company etc. was hard. The good thing was that I got to the capital, turned right around and headed back north but this time a bit west to a beautiful mountain town named Jarabacoa for a women's conference. It was for new health promotors so I went with two of my women! They loved the conference, said they learned a lot and ate a lot of delicious, free food! It was great to see them participate and share time with other promotors - the hard work in the last 10 weeks has definitely paid off.

All in all this time has been very good in terms of reflection on service ....

Until next time!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

incredibly over due post...but here it is.

I have been writing this blog post for a few months now – I can’t tell you why I haven’t posted it but it may have something to do with my constant ADD.

Since the last time I posted a lot has happened and changed. Maybe part of the reason why I haven’t posted is because I feel like I have so much to catch you all up on or maybe not enough….I often find that daily things that happen to me now a days are no longer blog worthy because they have just become normality’s to me – part of my daily life, normal part of cultural exchange. Then, usually when I am bathing, I realize that if it had been the Laura of a year and a half ago experiencing this I would be blogging about it right away for the sheer shock value of an awkward cultural interaction. However, these cultural conundrums are things I am now viewing in two categories - things I would like to adopt into my lifestyle or things I couldn't even imagine doing. 

In fact - with only 9 months left of service this sums up exactly how I am feeling. I feel comfortable in my skin here, I know what to expect – most of the time – I feel like I finally have a personality I am comfortable enough to express in my campo and often times feel like I am just another community member that when there is an extranjero I even get territorial. This isn't to say that there are still things that happen that I often have to stop and say “wow, I don’t think I could ever get used to this” or “dang, I wonder if I will ever adopt that awesome part of the culture” – things that remind me how deeply ingrained cultural customs are, how deep they are rooted and how difficult they are to change.

First semester of college I took an anthropology course – to be completely honest I forget most of what I learned in it. In fact, I almost forgot I took that course until recently – I was discussing collective vs. individualistic societies with a very well  respected, upper class Dominican. I was explaining to him that here, people have a natural collective tendency and in the states it is not like that, full with examples and all. He asked, “did you study this in college?” and I said “yeah in college I took a course that gave me this introduction but now living it is a whole different ball-game”. I thank that course for giving me the two perfect adjectives in describing what I consider to be one of the most crucial parts of my service – coming from an individualistic society and living in a collective one.

The other day Jocelin, a girl who spends almost every waking hour at my house was helping me do oficio (chores). She worked really hard and did so much for me that week that I gave her 100 pesos. She said thank you, immediately turned to her little sister and said “Lokenja, please go give this to mom”. It may have been one of the most defining moments of my service. In this moment I not only felt humbled for her, but intense pride and gratitude – to know that a 14 year old girl who comes from one of the poorest squatting Haitian families in my campo probably doesn’t even conceive the concept of greed. It was complete second nature for her to do what she did, something she does all the time.

My possee - Jocelin, her two little sisters and my two little neighbors.

Last weekend I was mid-oficio, once again, and heard my name being bosiar-ed (shouted?) by a woman who I have adopted as my Dominican mama- Jovah. She shows up and says “hey, I brought you this.” I look down and it is a king crab – maybe about 5 pounds (I have no idea how to measure size of it) but it was really large. Already boiled she said it was for me to eat. Now, this may not seem like much but it is a huge deal – this woman’s family struggles daily financially. Her husband is a fisherman and they try to sell everything he catches – he could have sold this crab to a restaurant for over 1,000 pesos…I’m almost certain. She explains how I should open it and cook and it and just says, “I hope you enjoy it!”

I have been visiting one particular family a lot lately – I usually go a few hours after lunch time to spend the afternoon just plastic-chair-sitting with them and shooting the shit. Usually I hear the same stories, the same amount of times but it is my home away from home. Anyways this family does not have a source of income and they get help from the government monthly – there is a card here, similar to the WIC program in the states, where if you apply the government gives you money for gas for your stove and food staples. No matter what time of day, what day of the week or what attitude I go visit them with, they always have food saved for me. A full plate of whatever was cooked that day is always put aside for me.

All of these exemplify collectivism. I try, on a daily basis, to live this way – it is much harder than I thought. It involves taking yourself out of the equation almost completely. If I cook for more than just me it means I need to buy more food soon, which I may not even have enough for at the time - therefor it might mean going a few days with only one meal or hoping that my neighbors will brindar-me food everyday. It means the kids could get used to this and I would have them at my house more often than I already do. It would mean more dishes – which involved more water, which means I have to conserve on bathing and cleaning because water comes a few time a week. It means giving the villager a fish and not teaching them how to fish.

      These are the things I love about the Dominicans - most hospitable people I have ever met - a lot of it has to do with their need for unity and sincere need to take care of each other - something that I want to continuously practice and immerse myself in. 



               Since getting back from the states it has been really hard to get back in the swing of things. Thinking about the little time I have left and the amount of things I would like to do often throw me into a state of shock. How am I going to do everything I want to for my community. I often feel like my wheels are spinning as the whole behavior change things is almost absent - even after 9 months of charlas and home visits.

So my Hogares Saludables course ended last week and I am prepping the women for their jobs as health promotors. They are all very excite for they carnets (ID badges) as health promotors but most of them still don't understand the basic concept that sugar and salt are bad for you. "But Laura, isn't this what you spent the last 9 months training them on? Every week?" Yes, but where I live - and the whole region of the south in general - is very behind on health education. 
Their concept of health is the fatter i am the healthier my body is, the fact that i don't have any aches or pains means I am healthy as a horse and the more my body can ingest and consume the better my bill of health is. 

My youth, who graduated in November, are slow. One of them has started his own group which is AMAZING! He is three charlas in and it is going very well!

My secondary project currently feels like a mountain. I am waiting for donations - which are slow - and trying to figure out where to get book donations from. It is definitely going to be my biggest project during service and I am excited to see how it starts up...we will see.


I have been eating a lot of Pica Pollo lately and it is amazing. I really like it - never thought I would and I'm sure my mom would be repulsed to know how much I actually eat - BUT while I am traveling to and from the capital it is the easiet and cheapest thing to buy...well that and YUCA - which I always have been consuming a lot of.


Yes, I am already thinking about it. With 9 months left I have decided to stay in country and apply for a leadership position within Peace Corps. This is going to provide me not only with leadership skills but also to work another year in the development field but in a different area - one where I would imagine would be more similar to an NGO job in the states -  and see if it really is something I would like to do. It involves more strategic planning and in office stuff - a good transition between regular peace corps placement and real-world job. 

For now things are going...they are moving forward - the best way to describe it in few words. BUT if you want a better idea of my current life - just look closely at the photo below!

Toodles for now and - don't worry - I will be blogging more often - I want to try out the writing thing for a while...a possible gig post-pc? international journalism? maybe. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A,E,I,O,U. condoms. Good Eats.

YES. Vowels, Sex Ed and food - all musts in life. 

School has finally begun after 3 weeks of it being open and nobody sending their kids. Crazy, I know. The school opens and all the parents automatically know when each family will send their kid – no one wants their kid there alone so they all wait and pounce when everybody else sends their kid – this whole process takes about 3 weeks. The first day of school was supposed to be mid-August. Were almost done with September and on our 2nd week of school.

I knew the Dominican education system was constantly failing but this was just too ridiculous. I decided once and for all to open up and start my Learn How to Read classes with kids in the community who were interested….have I EVER taught reading? NO. Do I know anything about teaching? NO. However, I am confident that I can teach this kids something the education system here probably never will – critical thinking, school can be fun, teachers are here to help, etc.  This is my mission – to show these kids that learning doesn’t have to involve getting beat by teachers, rote memorization and overcrowded classrooms with kids within a 10 year age range in one grade.

I looked up how to teach kids to read and found a Peace Corps manual called “Yo Se Leer”. PERFECT!! Made a few copies and made my students each a folder. Each one of them gets a box of crayons when they come to my class to color in different drawings of objects that start with the letter that we are working with that day – trying to develop creativity too.

CONDOMS. Where do I begin? I have unrolled about a hundred of condoms in the last 3 weeks. I have come to that point in my youth group where we are doing condom demo’s, charlas on family planning, condom contests (how many condoms can you put on correctly to a banana in 5 minutes), etc. This has been my focus recently. It has been very successful as a few of my youth have admitted to me that they have had condoms break or get frustrated and just don’t use one for lack of knowing how to put one on correctly. Due to all these recent charlas, I have had more people come to my house to ask me questions and advice about their sexual relationships. In big groups they all joke around but separately it has been incredible to help them out and answer questions. A lot of the guys here are actually very mindful of the teen pregnancy issue and its negative consequences.

My youth group is due to graduate in mid-november and I have selected about 7 leaders who will move on to give their own charlas – making our network of youth health promoters wider as the time goes on.

Doing a role play of how a couple negotiates condom use

Thank you PEACE CORPS,  USAID AND PSI for providing us with a wooden penis for demo purposes

Discussion about family planning methods

Family Planning activity

Each group had to campaign why their method is the best one

o, yeah..all this by flashlight and candles


My young adolescent girls group is wrapping up. Chicas Brillantes graduation is right around the corner and I will be making them a cake and giving them each a bracelet for graduation. During graduation I will motivate them to continue spreading the word about women's empowerment, self-esteem, good decision making etc. This has been my most successful group so far and I will miss knowing that I have quality time with them once a week...

Learning how to take care of our bodies

nutritous meal after my nutrition charla with the Chicas

Every day is a challenge in terms of figuring out how to vary my diet. You see, as volunteers we are limited to a stipend. This means we are given just enough to cover food, rent, transport, work materials and other basic house necessities. Because of this my diet consists of Auyama (a vivere similar to squash), eggs, ham, rice, wheat, beans, some veggies (tomato, onion and peppers). Very rarely do I get other viveres (starchy, potato like food). Avocados are in season so I am eating a lot of those now. This is pretty much what I have available to me so…I have no other option than to get creative in the kitchen! This is what I have done so far…..

It's amazing what you can do with a two burner table top stove...

This has been life so far...much loved to yall!