Live from Santo Domingo
Trip Start Oct 11, 2008
9Trip End Dec 06, 2008
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I'm thrilled to report that I'm absolutely loving it here! Everything so far is exceeding any expectations I had, and I'm having a great time.
The trip to the Dominican Republic went well. I was slightly delayed leaving Atlanta, putting me into Santo Domingo about an hour behind schedule. If we had arrived more than ten minutes later, I don't think we would have been able to land. We arrived in sunshine, but in the few minutes it took to get off the plane, buy a tourist card, and get through customs all hell broke loose from the skies. As I entered baggage claim, the power went out. Somewhere from a dark corner an airport employee was snickering, "Bienvenidos a nuestro pais" ("Welcome to our country"). I just started laughing.
The outage only lasted a few minutes so I was able to quickly claim my bag and meet the driver who was there to pick me up. As I walked out of the airport it looked like I was watching video footage from a Caribbean hurricane. Coming from the skies was a sustained torrential downpour and all the fronds on the palm trees were blown in one direction. The airport road was already flooded and cars were driving through several inches of water. In the time it took Tony the driver to go get the minivan, the water jumped the curb and entered the arrivals pick-up area. I had to move to higher ground to keep my bag from getting soaked.
Tony pulled up and we leapt 6-inch puddles of water to get into the van. As we headed out onto the highway, cars were driving with their flashers on and some cars had pulled over because the rain was so heavy. We started encountering deep ponds of water in the road itself. It reminded me of the choice in the Oregon Trail game where you could either caulk your wagon and float across the river, or risk it and ford through. We totally took the fording option and just plowed through. Eventually the rain let up and the sun came out on the 45-minute drive and I thought the road conditions would improve. Wrong. The deluge started again and as we turned off the highway into a more residential area the flooding got even worse. Serious rivers were flowing through the streets at this point. In some places the water was completely covering the streets and was up on the sidewalks and entering driveways and parking lots. I didn't know if I should be concerned or just take it in stride like Tony was doing. In the end, the flooding was a conversation piece but nothing more than that.
We picked up Veronica, CSA's homestay coordinator, and she welcomed me in English on the way to my homestay. I'm living in a small, gated apartment building in what seems like a very affluent part of Santo Domingo. My host mom's name is Illeana and I'd estimate that she's about 55 years old. She has one son who lives here as well. His name is Jose Ricardo and he's 21. Illeana has been hosting volunteers since 2002 and has lots of them over the past few years! There are currently three of us staying here: Santiago, a volunteer in the Korean version of the Peace Corps (his real name is Korean but he goes by Santiago to be less confusing) and Mark, a Seattle native who is here for a six month volunteer stint with a microfinance organization. We each have our own bedroom, and I have my own bathroom. We have a giant combined living room/dining room, a small kitchen, and a nice patio balcony. Illeana's elderly mother lives in an apartment downstairs, so Illeana and Jose Ricardo sleep at her apartment though they seem to spend a good portion of their day up here with us.
Illeana is amazing lady. She clearly cares about us very much. Yesterday Santiago and I went to the mall with her (totally wasn't expecting a mall!) and she introduced Santiago and I as her hijos, or children. With a wry smile, she explained that she had four husbands: a Korean husband, two American husbands and a Dominican husband. She doesn't speak any English, but I'm viewing that as a very positive thing. In just the short time I've been here, listening to her and trying to speak with her has already improved my Spanish. She knows we're all learning, so she speaks slowly and clearly which is a tremendous help. Santiago had three months of language training so he speaks and understands much more than Mark and I. Mark has been here six weeks with three weeks of language, and he and I are more or less at the same level of proficiency.
Santo Domingo and more specifically the part of town I'm living in is definitely not a representation of the rest of the country. I feel very spoiled to be in a well-furnished apartment with meals cooked for me. There's a nice, air-conditioned mall right around the corner and a KFC, Pizza Hut and Dunkin Donuts nearby. However, in our relative luxury, the water and the power do go out frequently. The water was out all day Saturday and Sunday; it came on just long enough in the morning for me to grab a quick shower Sunday morning. Hot water simply doesn't exist. I haven't experienced any extended power outages yet, but I'm sure they are in my near future. It's also pretty darn hot here. The humidity is worse than the heat. I can't even sit in the apartment without sweating unless I'm under the ceiling fan.
Today I had my first Spanish lesson from 9am to 4pm. It was a long day, but I think it was pretty productive. Everything was entirely in Spanish. I have two teachers: one for the morning session and one for the afternoon session. I really like them both. I also met most of the other CSA staff today. What an amazing group of people! They are all incredibly supportive, kind and they all have great senses of humor.
Part of my lesson this afternoon was about transportation and the lesson included a field trip to use the carros publicos, or public cars here. They are a combination of taxi and public bus. The cars run a certain route, like the length of a street, and pick up passengers until the car is full. Passengers can get off at any point on the route. You change cars at intersections if you need to go somewhere that's not directly on the route. The cars are total junkers and usually look like they just barely survived a demolition derby. They pack up to four people in the back and three in the front including the driver. It's a pretty efficient and very inexpensive way to travel.
The big news today is that we got internet at my house! I never expected to have internet where I was staying. Santiago and Mark have been trekking around the city to have internet access for weeks, so they are really pumped to finally be able to connect to their families and friends from their own rooms.
Tomorrow it's more Spanish, more Spanish, more Spanish. I think it's starting to sink in though. I keep a written journal of all my trips and this afternoon I was mixing Spanish words in with my English. Off to study some more!