Tuesday, June 24, 2014

S'mores, surfing, Santiago (Tuesday Week 3)

Last week there was an international fair at PUCCM, and our CIEE program had a booth. We taught people how to make s'mores, and we even had some little catering burners to roast the marshmallows! (Big shout out here to Dorvelie, the CIEE intern who organized it all!) The host moms' organization also had a table and they made a ton of delicious food, and we got to visit tables for Haiti, Spain, Peru, Korea and Germany, among others. Finally, some of the kids in my program performed a dance with flags from all different countries (I missed the rehearsal so I was the photographer). It was a blast!

The s'mores were a hit!
I also had a blast this weekend, since we took a trip to Cabarete, a beach town about two hours from Santiago. We got there by taking a Caribe Tours bus, which is a nicer and cheaper version of Megabus. We bought our tickets the morning of the trip for 160 pesos (about 4 dollars) and they have their own bus stations, so you don't have to stand on the sidewalk. Our hotel was only a 10 minute walk from the beach, and it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever stayed. I shared a room with two other girls. We had a balcony, a shared kitchen and a tree whose trunk went up through the floor of our hallway and out through the roof!

Tree growing through the floor in the hallway!
Cabarete is significantly more touristy and developed than La Ensenada, the first beach we visited. After two weeks in Santiago, it was very weird to see signs in English (and German and Russian) and prices listed in US dollars. There were plenty of restaurants and bars along the beach, and there was a beach volleyball court! I was really excited when I saw it, so a friend and I worked up the nerves to ask if we could join in. We were the only Americans playing with a large group of Dominicans who were taking turns playing 6 v. 6. The players were athletic so it was a good game, but it was pretty casual. Then a few hours later a few Dominican guys came to play doubles, and they clearly knew their way around a volleyball court. They were much, much better than me and I was pretty tired, but they were very nice and let me play in their warm-up game. The whole afternoon was awesome and playing volleyball on the beach was one of my favorite moments in the DR so far.

(Side note: It felt weird typing out "Americans" in that last paragraph, because Dominicans, and Latin Americans in general, feel that the word "americano/a" describes the entire continent and should not be used to describe things only pertaining to the US--to say that, you should use the word "estadounidense." Unfortunately, there's no easy way to make that distinction in English. I should also point out that multiple Dominicans have described me as "americana" but they get to do that since they live here, but it would be seen as arrogant for me to do it because I'm from the US.)

The view from our balcony! Paradise!
Besides hanging out on the beach, the other awesome part of the weekend was taking a surfing lesson! Cabarete is known for watersports, especially kite surfing, windsurfing and surfing. The waves were really rough but our instructors were great and I was able to stand up on the board a handful of times! After the surfing I was pretty exhausted, so some of the others and I decided to skip going to the 27 waterfalls on Saturday. I hope I make it back there at some point, but it felt really good to get back to Santiago. Being in a tourist town, people assume that you're a tourist who knows no Spanish, and they see you mainly as a potential customer. Of course, we are foreigners and we were there to relax and have a good time (and spend money) so I really can't blame them.

In short, I'm glad that I went to Cabarete because it made me appreciate the fragile, but growing sense of belonging I have in Santiago. I know my way around the neighborhood and I feel comfortable walking back and forth to school on my own and greeting people in the streets. Between my looks and my accent I'm still obviously a foreigner, but I feel like people tend to perceive me more as an exchange student and less like a tourist. This makes it a lot easier to let down my guard and ask more questions and go new places and try new things, and then those experiences help me feel even more comfortable and ready to try something else. One of my goals for the rest of this week is to keep pushing my boundaries by talking to more Dominicans on campus and going out to explore more of the city.

CIEE dancers at the International Fair

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"The idea is that you are better today than you were yesterday" (Sunday Week 2)

Classes officially started last Wednesday, but we're still spending more time out of class than in it. We don't have classes on Wednesday afternoons or Fridays, and this Thursday was a Dominican holiday, so we had a four day weekend. We have three classes: Spanish (which includes a separate film component), Medical Sociology, and Community Medicine. Spanish is definitely challenging, but my professor is very nice and engaging. She mixes grammatical lessons with practical tips and information, like idiomatic expressions and how the Dominican accent works. We still haven't seen any films in the film component, but I like the professor a lot and I'm looking forward to having that class on Tuesday.

"The idea is that you are better today than you were yesterday"
The Medical Sociology class and the Community Medicine classes are pretty similar, so sometimes it's hard to keep them straight. They take place in the same classroom, are taught by young female professors, they include a lot of group work and they sometimes cover the same topics on the same day. We've covered the organization of the Dominican health system in both classes, and now we're going over the Millennium Development Goals in Sociology. In Community Medicine, we're talking about the transmission, prevention and treatment of diseases endemic to the DR, including Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria, Leptospirosis and Salmonella.

We also got to visit three hospitals in the Dominican public health system on Tuesday. The first hospital, Hospital Regional Universitario de José María Cabral y Báez, was built in 1978 and is undergoing a much-needed renovation. The wing that had been completed looked like a different world compared to the un-renovated part. The Dominican health system is leveled, and the this hospital is part of the third level, which is the most specialized. They have almost all of the specialties that you would see in the US, including things like laproscopic surgery and a NICU, and plenty of doctors and medical students, but a huge lack of material resources. They were pretty proud of their one modern X-ray machine and two computers for viewing the images. They don't have an MRI machine yet, but they are getting one as part of the renovation. It seemed like the hospital was slightly, but not hugely overcrowded, but the biggest thing I noticed was that US hospitals have so much more stuff. The hospital rooms have four beds and a bathroom and maybe an IV pole or two--no TV, no monitors, no chairs, no cabinets, no tables, no boxes of tissues, no hand sanitizer, no trash cans, no boxes of gloves and gowns. I'm sure the lack of stuff also carries over to things we didn't see as visitors--lab tests, operating supplies, etc. It makes me wonder how much of the "stuff"in US hospitals is necessary to practice good medicine, and how much of it is spending whole lot of money for little (or no) benefit. The other crazy thing is that this hospital covers the population of 14 provinces--there are only 2 or 3 similar third level public hospitals in the whole country. The government is investing a lot of money in upgrading this hospital, which is very good, but they also need new hospitals altogether, so that people don't have to travel two hours or more to get to this one when they need it.

Regional University Hospital (The wing on the left is being renovated)

We also visited the third level children's hospital and a second level regular hospital. The children's hospital seemed to have more resources than the adult hospital and was a lot less crowded. We saw an oncology unit and a burn unit, and there were a lot of murals and a fish tank and toys for the kids. We didn't spend much time at the third hospital (we were running late) but we listened to an administrator talk about the services they offered as a second level hospital. The system is supposed to work through references--when you have a problem, you go to the primary health center first, and they decide whether you can be treated there or should be referred upwards. However, in reality, people decide on their own to go to the hospitals, because they think they'll be treated better there, even if they have a routine problem. Our professor said that one of the biggest challenges is convincing people to use the system the way that it is designed, so that it can work the way it's supposed to.

Children's Hospital

The hospital visits fit nicely into a larger pattern that I've noticed over the past two weeks: Dominicans are very focused on and committed to improving their country. There are a lot of problems here, but there are also so many projects happening to address them. In the 15 days I've been here, I've read about or heard about a national effort to regulate the prepaid cell phone industry, the opening of the national 911 emergency system, a new naturalization/registration process for Haitians living illegally in the DR, an increase in funding for education to 4% of the GDP, plans to increase the country's use of clean energy, and a campaign to eliminate illiteracy. There are also lots of billboards and announcements (many featuring baseball players or other celebrities) encouraging people to obey speed limits, wear helmets on motorcycles, speak out against domestic violence, etc. I saw a phrase painted on the street that captures this attitude perfectly: "¡La idea es que hoy seas mejor de lo que eras ayer!"which means "The idea is that you are better today than you were yesterday"

Monday, June 16, 2014

La Vida Dominicana (Monday Week 2)

Last Thursday we had a cena comparativa, where all of the host families in one neighborhood cooked one dish of the meal, and our group of students went from one house to the other, meeting each others' host families and seeing their hoses. It was a really fun way to get to know each other better and try different kinds of Dominican food! We started with a salad with a delicious passionfruit dressing, then a vegatable soup. For our main dish we had pasta with bacon, and then mangos and an almond cake for dessert. Finally we had coffee, tea and juice at my family's house.

In general the food here is a lot fresher than in the US, and there are fewer grains and starches. I've only eaten bread a few times, although rice is pretty common. (Red beans, called habichuelas, and rice is probably the most typical Dominican dish--I love it!). I've tried a lot of plantain dishes too, including mangú, which is mashed green plantains, frequently with onions and/or cheese. Fruit is also a huge part of the Dominican diet, especially fruit juices. We have a mango tree in our backyard and I have mango with breakfast every morning. Sometimes all the sugar can be a little much for me (and this coming from a girl with a massive sweet tooth!) so I try to drink water whenever I can. I've also had a lot of chicken and fish cooked with really delicious spices. 

The culture is also rather more relaxed than in the US. One of the first phrases our resident director Ryan, taught us was Cojelo suave, which roughly translated means "Take it easy."Most people take a long lunch break in the middle of the day--we have a three hour break between classes from noon to 3 where we go home, eat lunch and rest a little bit. You also see people, especially older men, hanging out outside and socializing at all hours of the day. However, Dominicans, especially upper-class Dominicans, tend to care about how they look a lot more than in the US. At the university, pretty much all of the students look nice, and for special occasions people really go all out. I attended my host sister's graduation from PUCMM on Saturday, and it was a beautiful ceremony, but I also really enjoyed the opportunity to people-watch. For women, heels, lipstick, and jewelry are all more common and more showy than in the US, and men's clothing is just more fashionable in general. Overall, I like taking the effort to look nice, although I've been passing on the heels, since even in flats I'm taller than most Dominicans who are wearing heels!

I also have to correct some of the info about my host family that I posted earlier. While adjusting to the language barrier and just general settling in, it took me a few days to realize that the family profiles that were sent to us introducing our host families were four or five years old, so a lot of things have changed since they were written. Anaida, my host mom, has a husband, Miguel and three children, Carlos, Carolina and Melissa. Miguel was living and working in New York, but he had a stroke a few years ago and came home. He walks with a limp and has some speech problems, but he seems like a pretty happy guy and spends his time doing work around the house. Carlos is married with a three-year-old son, Carlos Angel. He lives nearby and comes over a lot, and Anaida and Melissa frequently watch Carlos Angel. He's particularly friendly and easy to talk to, and he's taking English classes so he likes to ask me questions about grammar and punctuation. I also love playing with Carlos Angel--he was very shy the first few days I was here, but now he talks to me and likes to climb all over me. Carolina is also married and lives in Santiago, although further away than Carlos. I met her and her husband for the first time on Saturday. Melissa is the youngest. She's 23 and just graduated from PUCMM on Saturday with a degree in dentistry. She is living at home for now but wants to go study in Brazil in the fall.

We started classes on Wednesday and went to the beach on Friday (we don't have classes on Fridays). The beach was called La Ensenada, and it's about 2 hours from Santiago. The water is super blue and shallow, and there's barely any waves. We spent most of the morning in the water, and then had lunch, which was fish, salad, rice and beans, sweet potatoes (batatas) and tostones (fried circles of yellow plantains). In the afternoon, we took a 25-minute boat ride to a tiny sand little island in the middle of the ocean. The boat ride was fast, exhilarating, and very wet, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. We went snorkeling at the island (my first time). The reef and the fish were a little less colorful than I was picturing, but there were all sorts of different fish to see if you looked closely. I also saw an eel that was more than three feet long!

The beach! It's a small beach and it was was early on a Friday morning so it was basically empty.


Sand island--I wish I could have taken pictures of the snorkeling

Little restaurants and stores on the beachfront road--I love the bright colors.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orientation (Tuesday Week 1)

Studying abroad continues to do funny things to my sense of time. It feels like it's been more than a week since I wrote the last post, but it's only been 72 hours. On Sunday morning we went to Jarabacoa for an orientation, which is a town south of the city at the base of the mountains. We drove for about half an hour in a guagua (a large van that seats about twelve people comfortably and fifteen or sixteen if you squish. We always have to squish--a good way to get to know people better!) and arrived at Casa Club, which had a large open pavilion, a snack bar, a regular bar, a pool, a basketball court and pool tables.

We spent the morning listening to the program directors talk to us in a small room with very cold air conditioning. It was cooler in Jarabacoa than in the city, but it was still very warm outside and we felt like we were defrosting each time we had a break. Then we had lunch, which was delicious--rice chicken and salad. Lunch was nice because we got to spend a lot of time talking and getting to know each other, especially the students that we hadn't met yet. After lunch the estudiantes de apoyo (support students) from PUCMM talked to us about university life. This part of the day was in Spanish after a morning of English, which was an adjustment. After the presentations ended, we had free time to hang out with each other and the estudiantes de apoyo. It was getting cloudy and a little colder, so I didn't swim, but I played some basketball with some other students and some Dominican kids. The game we played was sort of like a team version of Horse, and the kids clearly had fun teaching us the game and bossing us around.

When we got back to Santiago, we went out to a restaurant/bar called Puerto del Sol to celebrate someone's birthday. The place was large and casual but quite nice. No one went crazy since we had to be at the university at 8:15 to take Spanish placement tests the next morning, but we had a good time.
The Spanish placement test was very similar to what I've taken at Pitt, and I guess I did well since I'm in the advanced class. I'm slightly nervous about this since there are 8 or 9 heritage speakers in my program who are very good at Spanish and I'm a little worried about being compared with them, but overall I'm glad that my Spanish was good enough for them to place me there.

I think I'm ready for the classes to start, although we know surprisingly little about them. They are going to be taught entirely in Spanish by professors from PUCCM, but there aren't going to be any Dominican students in our class. I haven't seen a detailed syllabus yet, and I have no idea how much homework there will be, but I guess we will find out soon! Overall I enjoyed orientation, but I'm getting very tired of being in such a large and cumbersome group all the time. Everything starts late and takes forever because there are so many of us, and I feel like we're always very loud and conspicuous and a little obnoxious. Sometimes it seems like things could be better organized, but the program this year is almost twice the size of the one last year, so I can see that that they might not be used to working with such a large group.

This afternoon we actually did get to go out and see the city by ourselves in smaller groups. We did a scavenger hunt through the city, and it really helped me become more comfortable using my Spanish in real-life situations and getting around the city. Dominicans are super friendly and we had no problem getting directions and other information from people on the street. In addition to walking, we traveled using conchos, which are cars that follow a fixed route and pick up and drop off passengers at any point along the route. They're very safe during the day and they're super cheap--twenty pesos per person (about 50 cents). The catch is that they will hold as many as six passengers, two in the front seat and four across the back, which is more than a little uncomfortable!

Besides all of the CIEE activities, life with my familia anfitriona (host family) is a entirely different but equally important part of my experience. I'll save that for another post since I have a lot to say on that subject, but in general everything is going very, very well. I really like talking about life with our host families with the other students when we walk back and forth to the university each day, because we can compare our experiences and tease out the general patterns of Dominican life from all of our individual experiences with each family.

I've been really bad about taking pictures over the last couple days, but I'm going to upload some that other people took (and that they promised to send to me) as soon as I get them!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Arriving! (Saturday Week 1)

Twelve hours ago I was sitting at the gate waiting to board the plane...but it feels like ages ago. My flight left from Newark at 9 am, and I was very lucky to have about twelve other students from the program on the same flight. We started getting to know each other at the gate, and we got louder and more conspicuous as more and more people showed up. The flight was pretty short--about three hours and forty minutes. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the heat. 82 degrees here feels a lot warmer than 82 degrees in Pittsburgh, because there's more humidity and less AC. Also, we were able to go through customs and immigration as a group, which was wasn't hard but it was still nice to be with a group.

Once we had our baggage, we got in a big van and went straight to PUCMM (the university) to meet our host families. As the van was parking and we were gathering up our things, all of my nerves and anticipation peaked, and I could tell that the other students felt it too. To add to the stress, I was one of the last people to find my host mother, but eventually she found me and we went into an open air pavilion (out of the sun!) where we could sit down and get to know each other. They served us some snacks and we watched a few short videos introducing us to PCUMM and the DR. It took me a little while to warm up to speaking Spanish and get over my nerves, but eventually my Spanish started flowing well enough to hold a conversation.

The reception was pretty short, and afterwards we all split up to go to the homes of our host families and start settling in. My host mother's name is Anaida, and she has two daughters who live with her, Carolina, who is 24 and Melissa who is 18. Anaida's husband Miguel Angel usually lives in the US, but he is home now so I got to meet him too. Anaida also has a son, Carlos, who is married and lives with his wife and three-year-old son in an apartment around the corner from Anaida's house. Carlos and his son drove us home fromt he reception and he was very kind and helped break the ice by describing some of the city sights as we passed them.

I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with Anaida and eating the food that she kept offering me. I had the most delicious mango from the tree in their backyard, so I'm looking forward to eating more of those in the mornings before class! My Spanish speaking is going way better than I could have hoped--I was able to keep up conversation with Anaida for most of the afternoon. Of course there were plenty of times where I trailed off in the middle of a sentences because my vocabulary failed me or where I had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face because I lost the thread of the conversation. Overall though, I can make myself understood and I know I'm going to improve rapidly with so much practice.

Tomorrow we have a full day of orientation at a hotel/conference center/vacation club (not exactly sure which description is most appropriate) that supposedly has some beautiful waterfalls and a pool to swim in. The pool is our reward for sitting through three hours of presentations about diarrhea, Dengue fever, cultural adaptation and other fun topics. I'm excited to talk to everyone that I met on the plane to hear about their evenings with their host families. I'm also excited to meet the 20-ish other participants in the program whom I haven't met yet. (There were different host-family receptions for the people whose flights arrived at different times). I'm also excited to see more of the country and the city and start getting a feel for what everyday life is like here.

Side note: The house where I'm staying has wifi so it seems like Internet access won't be a problem. Feel free to email and send Facebook messages! Also, if you'd like to get a postcard, send me your address and I'll mail you one!

Our descent into Santiago. The city is right at the base of the mountains so it's really beautiful.

Flying directly over the city

On the ground!