Week 1- Orientation

5 04 2010

I think I was the only American on the flight- todos estaban dominicanos! As soon as I sat down, I thought well, welcome to the DR. The flight attendants spoke both English and Spanish and upon seeing me, they spoke in English (the blonde hair and pale skin is a dead give away). But when I returned their comments in Spanish, they immediately smiled. People used both languages separately and congruently. No one followed any instructions and I have never seen so many children without close parent supervision. I read prior to leaving that in Dominican society the community helps to raise the child and I saw that reflected in the attitude of the parents. The couple sitting next to me asked why I was going to Santiago, because it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t Dominican. I told them that I would be studying there and the man proceeded to tell me all of the things that I should do and see while in the DR. The woman said two things (well, she talked quite a bit but basically had two main points): 1. be careful and never walk alone and 2. the food is usually delicious and I have to try el queso frito (fried cheese). There was not a moment of silence on the whole flight, so many conversations going on! When we landed, I had to go through immigration and customs. The officers barely checked my papers, and again spoke to me in English. I noticed that they took more time, though, with darker-skinned people. When I picked up my luggage and exited I walked right outside. The airport is mostly outside! It is essentially three sided, there are gates and places to eat but there it’s all open air. I met another girl from my program in the airport and we had lunch while we waited to be picked up. While waiting some more students arrived in Santiago.

The administrative director, resident director, and student interns arrived in a bus to bring us to a small reception where we were to meet our host families. On the bus ride, we all chatted about our flights and basic information about where we were from. We arrived at a social hall where my host mother, Mary, and two (adorable) brothers met me. She have me a hug and a kiss and introduced Alejandro (age 5) and Marco (age 4). She is extremely kind and has a lot of energy! We chatted for a bit and ate. I got to taste traditional Dominican sweets, one made with coco and another with coconut. The are REALLY sweet! I have noticed that everything here is sweeter and I think it’s because they use real cane sugar, it isn’t like our white and perfect crystals, it is in irregular clumps and is tan. After eating, we went home.

I live in un apartamento which is typical for a middle class Dominican family. I have a nice room with a huge closet (:) ), a double bed, and a nice desk. They have una muchacha (like a housekeeper) who comes everyday to help with household chores. They also have a little chiwawa named Buster (said more like “Booster” in Spanish) who is very cute.  After the boys gave me a tour, Mary took me for a tour of Santiago. We rode in the car throughout the city and she (and the boys) pointed out all of the highlights. A few observations: 1) driving there is CRAZY! No one follows any street signs and the lanes are more like suggestions. There are minimal stop lights, just stop signs. People walk whenever they feel like it where ever they feel like it. You really have to be a defensive driver! 2) Most of the buildings are made of stucco and look old and run down, but yet they still function. There is a street called “Calle del sol” and it’s sort of like Chinatown in NY but smaller. 3) We stopped at a salon that Mary’s sister owns (and where four of her sisters work). It was NOTHING like the salons in the United States. Similar to the plane, everyone was talking all of the time. There didn’t seem to be any form of organization like appointment times. Eyebrows were done right in the seat where you get your hair cut and nails were done at a rolling desk and simply involved the nail polish and remover, no extras. 4) The vegetation is very beautiful. There are palm trees and tropical plants that I have never seen before but they make for a nice landscape.

After my driving tour of the city, we picked up my host father, Tomy, from his law office. He was also very gracious and wanted to know how much I knew about baseball. Unfortunately, I don’t know much but he knew of the Baltimore Oriole, only because of Cal Ripken, and he was excited to hear that I live not to far from him. When we arrived home we had la cena (dinner) which consisted of mashed plantanas (a fruit similar to a banana) and scrambled eggs with ham. Then Tommy showed me their TV which they work through the internet. They have a computer hooked up to the television and somehow the stations come through the internet, computer, and to the tv. I asked him if this was advanced technology and he asked me if I was joking. I said no! We just have digital cable. And he explained that cable was very expensive in the DR and the internet tv has been around for quite a while.

After unpacking, I got to bed. I was exhausted after a long day of traveling and so much introduction to the city, the language, and the culture. I woke up early on Saturday because I had to be dropped off at the university where we would start orientation. When the rest of the students arrived we all loaded into a bus to go to el club de la vega. There are students from all over the states who are doing this program, some from Vanderbilt, University of Minnesota, University of Texas, Columbia, Hopkins, and others. It was nice to hear about everyone’s’ host families. Like the United States, the families are of all shapes and sizes here. El club where we had orientation was sort of like a country club I suppose. There was a large banquet hall (again, only 3 sided so open air), a bar and restaurant, a pool, and meeting rooms. It was situated on top of a hill so the view was outstanding. In part of the banquet room there was a furniture store or exhibition of some sort and in the other part there was an event, I think a raffle, for “el día de las madres” (Mother’s Day, which is on May 30th in the DR). At the orientation we were introduced to the resident director, administrative director, secretary, and student interns. They presented basic material about the DR and our schedule of events for the next week. It was great to begin to get to know the other students, I have a feeling we will become a very close group. Almost everyone is premed (with a few nursing students) and we all want to gain similar things from our experience so I think it is going to work out quite nicely.

The general feel of the DR is nothing like the United States. Driving along the highways you see lots of people just sitting on their (mostly destroyed) porches, fruit stands, clothing stands, and various barrios (neighborhoods). There are some very underdeveloped areas, just outside of Santiago. People live in shacks that are falling apart. The city has problems with electricity so there are often apagados (power outages, they say “se fue la luz”) that can last a few seconds to a few hours. Most middle class families have inversors that kick in during the outages. There is also a switch that you have to turn on for hot water about 10 minutes before you need to use it. And most importantly, you cannot drink the tap water, every family has bottled water for drinking.

Overall, everyone seems to take a very relaxed attitude. And people LOVE to talk. It seems that everyone really connects, and quickly. It is customary for family and friends to simply stop by to chat. Tomorrow is el día de las madres and we are going to Tommy’s sister’s house. I’m excited 🙂 Pictures to come!

Mother’s Day and city/campus tours

My “aunt’s” house is in la moca, which is a neighborhood about 20 minutes outside of Santiago. Her house was about the size of our house! There was a gorgeous porch that opened into a small garden area with a mango tree. The fruit here is absolutely delicious and my Mary loves mangos, so we picked a few to bring back home with us. I met a lot of Tommy’s family. Most of the families here are much larger than the typical American family and they do a lot together. I met one of his brothers who is a doctor here in the DR and one of his nephews who lives and goes to school in NY. They all wanted to practice their English so I got to take a break from the constant language immersion for a day, but not from the cultural immersion. The greeting is a hug and a kiss and everyone greets everyone else without any reservations! They also all share quite a bit- they are ALWAYS talking. Everyone was very open and gracious towards me, and made sure that I ate and that I liked the food. I am always being told to eat more, or “sirvate mas” (serve yourself more). I also found out that one of the family members is getting married in the beginning of July, so I will get to go to the wedding which should be yet another amazing cultural experience.

On Monday, it was time to get back to the university. We met los estudiantes del apoyo (support students) who work with students from abroad who are studying at PUCMM. We went in a taxi all around the city, changed money, bought a cell phone (for only $18!), and toured around the city a bit. The students are our age or a few years older. Most of them live at home until they graduate from school and then they move out (usually to get married). They seem to like the same things we do, one of my classmates asked if there was a club with traditional Dominican music and the students said that all of the clubs play American music! I’m not surprised; many many things here are “Americanized”. Upon returning to the university, we had a very extensive language exam. Mary picked me up at the university and we went to get my brothers at school. They go to a catholic school that is run by nuns, much like the private schools in the United States.

On Tuesday, we had to do a scavenger hunt throughout the city with three other classmates! We were given a sheet with directions and questions to answer (all in Spanish, of course). We took conchos to get around the city. A concho is their main form of public transportation. It’s a really old (think 80s Toyota Corolla), generally partially destroyed, car in which you CRAM in. They fit two in the front seat, and four in the back seat- there is no concept of personal space. It costs 15 pesos (about 40 cents) to ride and there are lots of routes that are marked with letters. You can get on anywhere along the route and get off anywhere along the route, you flag it down a bit like getting a taxi. It’s quite an experience! So the first concho we had to get in for our scavenger hunt kicked one woman out in order to fit all four of us into the car. They enjoy stopping for American girls. After we cleared up where we needed to be dropped off and he figured out that we were students, he asked if he could spend the day with us and told us that we were pretty. That is quite common here. Throughout the day, we were constantly the victims of “piropos” which literally means compliment but it’s more like the equivalent of someone whistling at you on the street. Piropos range from a younger man basically saying “I want to take you home tonight” to an older gentleman saying “you’re so beautiful, God bless”. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been called “rubia rubia” (meaning blonde). So the scavenger hunt was a lot of fun and really encouraged us to talk to people on the street, get used to asking directions, and understand the concho routes. You can ask anyone directions here and they will do their best to help you! People are really extremely kind and always willing to talk. I have noticed that no one wears ipods. That could be because of the socioeconomic situation, but I think it’s also because people are more inclined to talk to each other rather than keep to themselves. Even on campus, no one wears ipods…that is unheard of on a college campus in the states. After completing the scavenger hunt, we took a tour of the university with the students from PUCMM. It’s a nice campus, very beautiful. There is even air conditioning in parts! There is also wireless all over campus and a nice little snack shop outside where students convene between classes. The classrooms are very basic- they have the chairs with desks attached, fans, a desk for the professor and chalkboard in the front of the classroom, and some have projectors.

We started class today, Wednesday June 2, but we only had our morning schedule and we don’t have class again until Monday because tomorrow is a holiday, Corpus Cristi, and Friday we have a trip to the beach! So far the classes are good. I really like my Spanish professor and Medical Sociology seems like it will be an interesting class. It’s going to be mentally exhausting to have all of my classes in Spanish, because not only do you have to understand the material presented but also the language that it’s presented in! Wonderful practice, though. I’m looking forward to continuing with classes. All of the professors so far have said that they generally really enjoy teaching American students because they are all focused and interested in what they came to the DR to study- invested students and teachers make for good classes!

2 de junio- 6 de junio

Wednesday is “Ladies Night” at a few of the clubs in Santiago. The drinking age is 18 here so we all decided to go check out the night life, it was free the whole night! We went to a club called “Camus” and they played music with Spanish lyrics but it was mostly popular American music. It was interesting, everyone knew the English lyrics but I think most of them didn’t have any idea what they meant. We met some Dominicans who we chatted with and danced with. The people here are quick to form friendships, by the end of an hour everyone had exchanged cell phone numbers. By about 10:30pm the club was packed wall-to-wall with young Dominicans. No one had classes the next day, so I imagine the club was packed until it closed.

We headed out around midnight because we were getting up the next day to go exploring in another town outside of the city. We figured out how to call a taxi, I don’t think I have ever witnessed faster or more mumbled language. But, we figured it out and got home safely. You can’t walk anywhere here alone, really at any time. Especially being American, they advise us to always stay in groups and take taxis, not public transportation, at night. After witnessing the club, I came to the conclusion that the nicest things here are the nigh clubs and the gas stations, because seemingly those things bring in the most money. Gas is incredibly expensive here- 150 pesos for one liter, that’s about $5 for less than a gallon!

On our day off, eight of us from our program decided to explore a town called Jarboacoa. We took a taxi to a park where buses depart from Santiago to La Vega and then another bus from La Vega to Jarboacoa. I am proud that we were able to do that- we negotiated prices and everything. Upon arrived in Jarboacoa we hiked in a park called La Sal de la Jimonesa. It was a gorgeous place in the mountains that took about 2 hours to get to in total. There were bridges over a fresh water river that was created from a waterfall. There was also a trail that we hiked for a bit that was extremely steep. It wound up part of the mountain to a point where we were actually above the waterfall. Coming back down was quite a trip, you had to use all fours! We were all drenched in sweat by the end and decided to hang out by the river on a small sandy beach and munch on some things that we had packed for lunch. None of us had brought swim suits, but some of us just jumped in the water anyways, fully clothed. But apparently, that was the norm. By the time we go in the water, there were lots of people there because it was a religious day so no one was working or going to school and I think out of the 30 or so people there, only two were wearing swimsuits. After enjoying the hike, sun, refreshing water, and scenes of men jumping around the rocks in their underwear, we headed back on the bus.

When we arrived back to Santiago we all headed home for a quick shower and got ready for la cena comparativa (a shared dinner). We met at PUCMM and departed in taxi back to our neighborhoods with some Dominican support students. We had salad at one house, soup at another, the main dish at my house, dessert at another, and finally tea and coffee at the last one. It was interesting to see everyones homes and the dynamics of their families. After the dinner, everyone said that I had the best family, and it’s true! My parents asked about all of the other students at the table and everyone got to meet my brothers and Buster (the chiwawa). After the dinner we were all exhausted (and a bit sun burnt from the day spent exploring in the mountains). Off to bed to get up early for the beach the next morning!

The bus left around 9:00am for Playa Ensenada. We arrived in about 2 and half hours to a gorgeous, quaint beach with seafood shacks extending along the coastline. The water was perfectly clear and you were able to go very far out in the water because it was totally calm and never went past mid stomach. It was really nice to lie around for the day and enjoy the water. The sun was incredibly hot, nothing like I have ever experienced! You could only lay for so long before you had to jump in the water or in the shade. And yes Mom, I wore sunscreen but I don’t think anyone left without getting a little burnt. The support students from PUCMM went with us and it was really nice to get to know them and understand the education system here. One of the girls was so fascinated in the whole sorority and Greek life system. After crossing the language barrier and explaining that “greek life” didn’t mean that there were just a lot of people from Greece who hung out together, she really enjoyed the concept of creating a sisterhood within a university community. And of course she asked, “Oh, so it’s like Legally Blonde?” But I can see how the idea would be very appealing here because they focus so much on community and relationships. The support students found it so strange that we were all involved in lots of activities on campus because most of them live at home and simply attend the university during the day for classes (similar to high school). They also elect a major that leads to a career immediately after university. So, for there are people my age already in “medical school” because their major at PUCMM is medicine so after they graduate in 4 years, they will be doctors! They think it’s crazy that we have to take 4 years of pre-med and then 4 years of medical school, 8 years of schooling in total, and I think it’s crazy that they only need 4 years of schooling. After taking in some Caribbean sun, frolicking in the crystal clear water, and sampling the local cuisine (“camarones”, shrimp), we pilled back into the buses and headed back into the city. That night a few of us went to the Plaza International (a mall that is conveniently very close to my house) to see a movie. Guess how much it cost?! 150 pesos. That’s about $4!! The theater was just like our movie theaters at home, complete with ice cold temperatures and overpriced concessions. After the movie, back home to get some sleep before heading off to the mountains for the weekend.

Weekend in the mountains

After getting back from a morning dance class where we learned meringue (a typical Dominican dance), we packed up for two days in the mountains. My host father’s father has a very nice piece of property and house located in a newly developed gated community in San Jose de las Malatas. The houses where very nice and most had a pool and their own fruit trees and various other gardens. They all also shared a wonderful view of the mountains! There was a 360 degree view of mountain sides dressed with palm trees, evergreens, and other tropical vegetation. We spent Saturday and Sunday with family and friends (about 15 in total) playing games, eating, and touring around the small town. The people were extremely nice and very impressed that I was learning Spanish. They were also shocked with how long the education process is in the US. One of the women there just graduated from college and was now a doctor. After high school, you elect a major and after 4 years you are ready to enter the work force. She said that although it’s nice to already be started in the workforce, there are a lot of things that you learn through experience that she feels are a bit rushed and wishes she had learned them in more thorough manner. The weekend was very relaxing and enjoyable; I even had time to squeeze in some vocabulary homework that was due on Monday.

When we arrived home on Sunday night, I played in a poker tournament with my host father, my his brother, his friend, and one of my friends from the program. It cost 50 pesos (about $1.50) and we played until someone had all of the chips. It was a lot of fun and I almost won, emphasis on the almost!

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7 responses

30 05 2010
Mommy

Wait until Uncle John hears about the plantanas! 😉

31 05 2010
MIMI

Hi Sweetheart: what a joy to receive your first installment. I could even receive the pictures! How lucky for you to have such a wonderful host family to stay with. Your descriptions of the airport and city brought back memories of my trip to the DR! Can’t wait for your next installment!

besos y abrazos!

31 05 2010
Aunt Lisa

Mamma Mia!!!

Wish I could be in your pocket…And you just arrived!

Muchos besos, Carida mia. ( We’ve got to show off our 2 words of Spanish, too !!!)

Uncle John sends his love and can’t wait until you get back. Me, too!

Be careful and God Bless your every move,

Aunt Lisa

1 06 2010
B

Takes me back to my travels through the Banana Republics. It’s a different world full of color, smells, and sounds that all seem so foreign at first. Sounds like the family will be very helpful as you adjust to the envionment. Good stuff, looking forward to the next update.
P.S sounds like there may be a dearth of good golf courses in the area

5 06 2010
Aunt Lisa

Enjoying everything you write. Keep ’em comin’!!!
Love and kisses.

8 06 2010
Mommy

How fun!! Is sleep on the schedule 😉

9 06 2010
Aunt Lisa

Gosh! Sounds like too much fun for me. I’m so eshausted after the mountain trip I have to go to bed!!!! Wow!

Storing up my energy for the next chapter. Love it.

Love and kisses.

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