A Brief Ode to Shorts

A “brief” ode to shorts! Get it? “Brief” shorts? Hahaha, okay… Nevermind.

Today it is 91 degrees, with a perceived temperature of 107 (according to the weather station). A little higher than normal, but it’s a scorcher. In honor of this summer’s weather, I present a personally crafted haiku:

Lost shorts of freedom
Heavy weighs my pant prison
Oh forbidden dream

Shorts are heavily frowned upon in public here, so it’s pants for me! I have never been so appreciative of belonging to a culture where I can wear what I want, when I want, where I want. Wearing shorts here increases the amount of harassment a woman faces public and is just “not done.” It’s been interesting to see what from the fashion world is permissible and what is not. For example, shorts are indecent but it is not uncommon to wear sheer tops that you can see bras through.

In a desperate attempt to beat the heat, I recently tried to go capri/skirt shopping. I have to admit that I was expecting to have some trouble finding clothes that would fit– I am a bit differently shaped than the majority of women here and was not sure I could find a size small enough to work. The surprise was all mine when I realized I couldn’t find anything big enough– the largest pant size I could find was a 6/7 (US size). In three stores. I was shocked. And then curious.

Dominicans dress up to go everywhere: to school, the store, across the street to Tia Maria’s, everywhere. But one of the things I have noticed is the variety of styles sported by each social group. In the more affluent and middle-class neighborhoods, many people wear clothes that fit the same way they do in the States– no stuffing, no rolling, etc. Most of these clothes come from the mall and have American labels. The next level in the fashion hierarchy wears flashier clothes that fit a bit more tightly across areas that clothes perhaps ought not fit too tightly across (and accordingly also seem to restrict breathing and a few other vital bodily functions). I truly admire the confidence required to wear such colors, buttons and patterns but wonder how in the world they fit such fashions on. Ideas surrounding physical beauty here are much different– one host mom recently complimented her departing American daughter on finally filling out her derriere and while my mother has never said such a thing, we usually eat more in one sitting than I eat in an entire day back home (and I can eat an entire pizza by myself, if that tells you anything). After I mentioned my adventures in clothes-hunting to a friend today, he pondered if Dominicans might not also have a different sense of how clothes fit on the body. It is an interesting question: Do clothes fit tightly here because they are supposed to or because larger sizes are only more readily available from the pricier American brands? Food for thought.

In the meanwhile- so long shorts, see you in back in Colorado!


In Which I Get Horrifically Lost, Make Some Startling Discoveries and Conquer My Afternoon Class

ImageHint: This is where I get lost… 

First and foremost, before I dive into the tantalizing stories teased above—mad props to my parents. They were so glad when I finally chose to visit a country without a raging drug war, widely publicized tourist kidnappings or frequent terrorist activities; I can still hear my mom’s sigh of relief. That being said, I must admit to finding a little guilty humor in the fact that halfway through my first week here a hurricane was predicted to hit the island (sorry, guys!). Fortunately, the only effect we saw of the storm in the northern part of the country was a temporary influx of violent rain. Also, I apologize in advance for this post. I tried my hardest to be safe, I honestly did.

But I digress, for there are adventures to be told! In order to best understand the following stories, I feel the need to preface this next part of my story with some background information:

  1. Yes, I am terrible with directions. I once crossed through five cities trying to navigate a 10 minute journey from downtown Denver to… Well, somewhere else in downtown Denver. And don’t even get me *started* on the peril of asking students to drive to their own SATs. I can either try and remember the formula for derivates or I can drive safely. You pick.
  2. I teach in a lovely school in Cienfuegos called La Escuela de Nuestra Senora de la Luz. My lovely school is located in not the lovliest of neighborhoods. Cienfuegos is a barrio originally founded in 1975 when a nearby town burned to the ground and the refugees were resettled in a makeshift area on the edge of Santiago’s landfill. Cienfuegos literally translates to “100 fires,” making the first settlers “refugees of 100 fires.”
  3. Cienfuegos is now the largest barrio in Santiago, with 80,000 residents. Although the school I work at is a better part of the barrio, I have been absolutely verboten from wearing any jewelry or bringing large amounts of materials for class. Originally there was some concern about bringing my small purse with me, but that has abated somewhat now that people have established a connection between the Americana and the escuela.
  4. In the Dominican, we use conchos as our major form of transportation. Conchos are essentially (usually) trained drivers who ferry people across the city on established routes. They may or may not have a license and they may or may not be operating a completely functioning vehicle. But in the end, they’re a very patient group of individuals who do their best to ignore all traffic signs and deliver you safely and securely to your destination (though one does usually feel they’ve left a roller coaster upon disembarkment). But they’re super easy for the directionally challenged to use as long as you know the letter of the route you need. Theoretically.

Unless, you have to take the F. The F goes two directions- por dentro y al centro (which they swap back and forth depending on which they think will get them the most passengers). Let’s say you are trying to get yourself to your second day of school and you confirm three times the route you need with the driver. You’re still a little shaky about living in Santiago and all the cultural shocks therein, but you feel confident about the day ahead of you. Today is the day… That the driver never passes any of the landmarks you so carefully memorized to make your way to school. Ack! Panic begins to seep in. Surely you remember… Something? No, not a thing. And now the driver is frustrated with you because you don’t know where to turn (you later found out he skipped your route entirely). The environment around you starts to deteriorate and you have left the paved road. There are no more apartments and an increasing amount of crowded lean-tos appear, so close they seem to be elbowing each other for access to the road.

Your driver pulls over to pick up a new passenger. At first the ride is quiet as you panic silently in the front seat; your first class begins in 10 minutes. The back passenger reaches forward and… pats your shoulder gently. ¿Cómo estás, mija?” “How are you, daughter?” A kind and maternal woman asks, genuine concern in her eyes. She barks at the driver, “Where is she going? Why is she scared?” He responds briskly that you’re looking from some sort of school he’s never heard of and she begins to list all the schools she knows nearby. Another passenger enters the car and into the conversation as well—“¿Ella es maestra? Hay una escuela…” “She’s a teacher? There’s a school…” The driver softens and between the three of them, they come up with a school that matches your description. But the driver passed it some time ago and does not want to go back. Handing you back your money, he pulls over and hails another F concho heading in the opposite direction. He yells the agreed upon school to your new driver as you switch vehicles and off you go. Passengers come and go, each trying their best to help. You are brought to four different schools, none of which you belong to. You are now 10 minutes late to class.

Eventually another passenger cheerfully lends you his cell phone to call your director, insisting that the driver use it to coordinate directions with her that will return you to someplace familiar. As they talk, you see the basurera de Santiago pass outside your window—the Santiago landfill. You have driven all the way through Cienfuegos to the heart of poverty. You see smoke climbing out of the landfill from fires no one can put out and trash rolls into the distance—crests and troughs, like huge waves on a turbulent sea. You catch a glimpse of people sifting through those peaks as the concho takes a slow corner on the narrow dirt road. Though the landfill is no longer in view, you can see its influence on the people and houses here. Women sweep dirt floors with salvaged, make-shift brooms, houses are retrofitted with the latest dive’s find. You have read about this area, where the houses push up against the landfill’s fence. Residents here have more health problems than you can count and rely on the dump for food, fuel and shelter. Respiratory illnesses are common due to the smoke from unquenchable fires and children often scrounge barefooted through the waste. You marvel that such kindness for a wayward school teacher can so easily become the primary concern of new passengers from this area—that they would postpone their trips, appointments, jobs to make sure one lost person gets safely delivered to a school. That your measly moment of terror could become a priority in a world like this.

A plan is made! You are returned to an area you recognize and your companions smile when you gasp that you know where you are. You are brought to the foot of your school, where your driver helps you out and gives you a big hug. Your first real hug since you have arrived. He waves goodbye as you climb up the stairs, ¡Cuidate, niña, cuidate mucho!”  “Take care of yourself, child, take very good care of yourself!”

And that was my Thursday morning! Haha! What a morning! I was almost an hour late to school and what is normal a 40 minute concho ride was very nearly two hours! The kids had been hanging around the school building, waiting for me and we all went in together. It was a very wonderful thing to be hugged by so many small and loving arms when you have just had a very large scare. My morning class was wonderful as usual and I felt I more or less drifted through the first half of the day, still flabbergasted at the kindness of others, shocked by what I had seen, and blown away by newly emerging perspectives on respect, poverty, and thankfulness amongst other topics.

After my rather adventuresome morning, I had no fear of navigating my afternoon class. I had a plan. And if I could survive my morning without falling apart, by gum, those kids were going to learn how to conjugate “I have” and “You have” in a sentence. And they did! It will take some reinforcement, but we had a very successful day and I felt very much in control of the class. We’ll see what next week brings, but I was very impressed by today’s progress (academically and behaviorally).

They always say traveling changes your perspectives, but they never say exactly how—I think it’s because the things that challenge us the most are the things we never expected to face. But for now, my friends, I’m tired of writing and if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty tired of reading (haha). Nevertheless, thank you for sticking with me; I’m always glad to have someone to share this adventure with.

ImageImage from:http://www.programasantalucia.org/ayuntamiento/ (All of the burning part is the landfill)


Image from: http://desdesantiago.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/la-basura-amenaza-salud-de-santiagueros/

Top photo from: http://semdom.50megs.com/cienfuegos.htm

Well, Hello There, Culture Shock…

Today was…. Amazing, scary, overwhelming, gratifying, exciting, encouraging, demoralizing, and exhaustive. Amongst other things, of course. Welcome to stage two of the culture shock cycle.

When you study abroad, they teach you about the culture shock cycle, which generally occurs in four stages:

  1. The Honeymoon: The world is fantastic and new! How have you never known that this exists or that is used to do such?!?!  Everything is full of wonder and you can *not* absorb enough of your new environment.
  2.  Negotiation: Also known as the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here phase. For some this is a short pit-stop, for others it is a longer journey. Most people characterize it by the irritability that one experiences when the wonder starts to fade a bit. One travel blog I’ve read actually characterized this stage as “Depression,” rather than “Negotiation.” Not to say that’s where I am, exactly, but having to start the “grown-up” part of my trip has served as a rather swift kick in the pants.
  3. Adjustment: Things start to make sense now and you’re piecing things together that used to send you running to the nearest paper bag to hyperventilate for a bit.
  4. Mastery: Hey, lookit you! Your new environment is starting to feel a bit like home, things are beginning to feel natural and did someone just ask you for directions around the plaza? Yes, yes, I think they did! Well done, you!

Because my trip is relatively short in terms of experiential service programs, I won’t be cycling through them the same way as someone who made a long-term commitment might—my cycles are more likely to be smooshed together and overlapping. That being said—I have a renewed sense of amazement at my friends who have made the decision to join the Peace Corps or leave the country to teach for more than my little month. I take my hat off to you (or would if I wore one)—you have truly made a great commitment towards building a global community.

My first day at school was… Not quite what I had expected. I teach two three hour classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Nuestra Senora de la Luz, a technical school in a barrio called Cienfuegos. Three hour classes are really something else, especially when you consider that my students’ ages range between 6 and 13 in my morning class and 8 and 13 in the afternoon. Mad props to one room school teachers, because that kind of planning is crazy crazy.

My morning class went really well—the students loved being introduced to Around the World and writing on the board to show off what they already know. I was really impressed with the students’ patience and willingness to sit through my instructions—especially when I realized half-way through talking that I had no idea how to say an essential vocabulary term. Oops… The kids are really sweet and warmed up to most of the activities very quickly, though some things I think we’re going to have to back up a bit first.

Highlights and surprises:

-Kids come up to you as soon as they finish an activity to have you check their work and for praise—no one waits in their desk until others have finished

-Dominicans have a limited sense of personal space—Your tummy, arms, hands, and back will all be poked and prodded for attention until you set some “americana” boundaries

-Recess at my school is 20-25 minutes long and we don’t have a playground. We just release the kids into the street to either go home, to the store, or for a walk and they (more or less) come back when you call them. Which you have to do, shouting “Ven” from the front porch until you start seeing your students come back into view. I have learned to delegate this particular task to some of the more… enthusiastic younger students.

-Several kids ran to the office after dismissal and told the secretary how much they liked class. I got hugs from a couple of the kids and many of the older girls didn’t want class to end! For me, that last part really affirmed that I made the right choice to teach middle school.

-Talking during instruction/moving/getting up and walking around during work time are all normal classroom behaviors for our school, as many of our students have never been to a formal school.

-We do a lot of coloring—I can already picture my UNC professors going into cardiac arrest. The books the school uses are written at an elementary level, which is fantastic for the little kids and far too simple for the older students. Students complete a basic (and usually insufficient) activity and then color. My plan is to slowly wean some of the older students off the coloring and toward some higher level thinking activities.

All in all, it was a good and challenging morning. I felt confident in my teaching abilities, positive about my developing language skills and excited for the next step. And then the afternoon class happened. Do you know why our schools get out before 3:00? It’s because no one in their right mind would try to make an 8 year old learn grammar at 4:00 in the afternoon in 98 degree weather. For three hours. Even using games, songs and movement, that’s a lot to ask of a kid. And their teacher. It destroyed me. I haven’t felt that out of place or defeated in a classroom since- well, maybe ever. The regular teacher forgot to leave the materials for the afternoon class (which is slightly ahead of the morning class—which they also forgot to tell me). Everything I had planned had already been completed the week before and I had no copy of the materials to improvise with. I made out pretty well the first two hours but I was so lucky that there was a compassionate 13 year old in that classroom who took pity on me around 4:00 and helped lead vocabulary games until the end of the day. The little ones were all over the place and the 9 and 10 year olds were sniping at each other. She helped run all the games and keep the little ones together—I would not have survived without her.

I’m not going to lie—my first step after school was to scout out a chocolate bar (no easy feat here, as chocolate melts too fast to be carried in most places). I pulled myself back to the apartment, put on a happy face for my host mom, and then boarded myself in my room for the next hour and a half. Though I’m not particularly proud of it, I’m going to own it: I threw myself a pretty little pity party. I lay on the bed and pondered through a bit of an existential crisis (you spend a lot of time in your own head when you travel to a county that speaks a language you’re not completely fluent in), pouted despondently, listened to my music, and researched signs of culture shock (hence the beginning of this entry). I was in the throes of debating my usefulness in society when a rather subtle orchestral version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” popped up on my iPod. Message received. It was enough to make me put down the research, change out of my gym shorts, and go out with the other ISA students, where I had an absolute blast. I’m so thankful to have so many positive influences in my life.

Tomorrow I’m going to re-work my game plan for my afternoon class; I already have a few ideas I think might work better. But for tonight, I feel hopeful. I’m going to try to internalize the lesson here and go to bed.  You can only do what you can do—then you have to let it go. You can pout for a bit but you can’t let the things that scare you stop you or you’re always going to be scared. You have to own it, learn from it and try it again.

In case you’re interested, these links proved especially helpful:

http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/lisalew/cuerpodepaz/1128460200/tpod.html This is an entry from a Peace Corps volunteer here in the Dominican as she realizes some of the impacts of culture shock in her life.

http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/6-tricks-for-a-more-enjoyable-existential-crisis/ As the link suggests, here are 6 Tips for a More Enjoyable Existential Crisis