Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ex Pat Retreat

Santo Domingo in October. The mangos are gone but the bananas and lechosa still overflow the bicycle vendor's cart. From watching the custodians at school meticulously carve lechosa into crushed ice and evaporated milk blended into a mid morning treat, I too have something to look forward to in my own morning ritual. My morning has changed slightly. No longer does the drive to awake at 4:30 for a run in the park beckon me.  Instead in a Proust moment, the smell of hay gathered from mowed grasses in the Mirador Sur draw me in for the late afternoon. Kata has soccer now so I have an hour alone. The hay is reminiscent of Vermont but new to me is the sound of baseball. the mowed meadows are swarmed by parents and coaches and young men in uniform, cracking their bats and calling plays. It has a rthym? or maybe not but I need to keep listening, watching because I have this need to put that acoustic in my memory.  I have yet to go to a game but it will happen.

October weather is still in the 80 temps (F). And it is still an impressive humidity. A river of sweat is now only 2 single trains trickling down my front and my back, pooling in my underwear like a overnight diaper. Advice to savvy travelers is to wear none.

We've been overseas for 3 months now. Our school leadership realized long ago, that this is when begin to lose faith, dwell on homesickness, develop aches and pains. We are counting our pesos- we are trudging through the end of a quarter of the school year. Some of us are feeling lonely, while other expats are feeling crowded.
A trip was planned for heading to the mountains of Jarabacoa to a ranch- Baiguate. The school chartered a bus and made all arrangements. It was a 2 hour bus trip/ party With a 1/2 way at a lovely brasserie for quipe and coffee and then the slow climb into the mountains. We were at least 3 or 4 degrees cooler at around 520 meters- not enough for a sweater but definitely a long sleeve shirt.
Kata had visited here with her class a few weeks earlier. She delighted in leading friends ahead of everyone to their sleeping cabins and walking us through the garden to the mess hall. It was dark when we arrived. And the lights of the bar- the sounds of kids running around screaming- it was all inviting. The buffet of fresh vegetables, salad, stew and yucca was heavenly. Weeks of chicken, beans and rice have built a craving in me for endless greens. Kata disappeared into the green space- I realize now that this is what I missed, her running out a door without a guard or chaperone. To be able to come and go, to visit friends whenever and to run freely, I had taken this for granted. 


It rained. So we huddled around the bar and the Cubs game. And these are the sounds that helped me drift off to sleep. Sleep without AC- with cabin windows wide open. 

I awoke, left Kata asleep with a smile and a blanket and orchestrated an early morning run up to the town of Jarabacoa with a group. We tiptoed passed each cabin. Parents had shut their kids out on their decks for extra snatches of sleep. In this 79? degree temp- the kids were contentedly coloring or reading or swinging in hammocks. Some inadvertently undid their parent's intentions by yelling loudly "good morning Whitney!"  

We ran, gasping up a large hill, the first in my three months here. We proceeded pas watercress farms, flower farms, plots devoted to the pungent licorice smells of basil and the sweet smells of sage or mint. My inclinations to buy these greens at the grocery store are affirmed. I can't get enough of this.

Jarabacoa is known for its guided canyoning expedition.We squeezed into neoprene wet suits that were missing knees and buttocks- much to our dismay and our giggles. Marc's flesh colored shorts did give us reason to laugh. The diesel took us straight up dirt roads high into the mountains. I was hanging on to me and to Kata and leaning forward to compensate for the steepness of the road. A momentary stall and recovery gave me such panic as I looked over the edge.

And then we were walking down a mountain stream. The guide with huge arms ripped an orange in half and squeezed it into the stream. We continued and the scent of naranja followed through the canopy, hopefully chasing away  mosquitos. Whether it was true or not, it made the trip enchanting. A few moments later the same guide with ripped abdominals picked up a ripe avocado, broke it deftly in half and gave us each a piece to eat. It was sweet and creamy. I made a sardonic remark- how convenient it was that he so easily found all of these things to impress us with when I looked up. This was an aguacate grove. And these experiences are just to be expected. I stopped talking. Our group became divided with three of us, walking swiftly ahead with our outrageously fit instructor. One teacher is also a true horticulturalist. naming off many flora and fauna, fruts and scents that I have only seen in exotic plant stores. but were here hanging like tents along the river banks and canyon walls. I know I'd pick her for a teammate on a survivor adventure or a Hunger Game. 


The silent but powerful guide gave us a team name, plucking palm fans for our helmets to wear, Kata as our leader. We rappelled down a 10' section of rock into a river. The instructions were simple. One hand behind, guiding with the other. Kata is an impeccable rule follower but not a dare devil. I went first. Then my friend, Amy. Marc went and we hoped Kata would follow? She went albeit slowly, and it was the last time I have seen her move slowly with fear. She was soon ahead of me jumping into water pools and second in line at every adventure to follow. 

The rains had muddied the waters- making the water shoots and plunges into pools that much more exciting. Each confidence chased a new challenge.  We zip lined and swam and eventually made our way to the last rappel. A waterfall, 60'- we took all of our skills from that last hour and put them into one death defying drop. I went second with Kata following. I felt heavy and sloppy and it took half of the rappel before I could be relaxed enough to let go. to just trust.  When I saw Kata without fear inching her way like a spider down that rock, I was so proud. I felt this release in me, like the waterfall and I let go of my angst, my sorrows, my frustrations that I carried all this past year. I let go of the bouquet that my handsome guide gave me and ran to Marc through the muddy water to plant a wet kiss on the lips like I meant it.

We returned ravenous and content to Baiguate. I had time to read and relax. Kata was off on her own running and playing. Once in awhile she stopped to bring me to a star fruit tree and to munch on plucked fruit. We pulled flowers from the Ylang Ylang tree to rub all over and breathe in that Chanel perfume. She came back having gathered macadamia nuts that she and other kids pounded with rocks and then gave to me as an offering. We carved pineapples into pumpkin style - Jack O lanterns to guide students on an organized trick or treat loop that took kids from cabin to cabin. The vats of piña pulp disappeared into a blender that magically appeared from a wizened camper. Ice and rum were blended into this lovely mess that also kept my glass magically full. A metaphor- glass half full of pina colada- never thought of that before now.








A storm was brewing and a steady rain followed. It did not impede the Halloween story hour or the viewing of the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. I took over Kata's toasted marshmallow and campfire costume, she wanted to continue her pace as a fast moving supergirl. We followed behind in a train of kids in costumes, trick or treating at every cabin. Meeting once more for more World Series, chatter, food and drink. Kids running in and out of rain that slowly tugged and melted the costumes. I once again trudged off to sleep with a smile on my face. 

Sunday came with more walks in gardens along a river and a run back up to the mountains. more time was spent wandering and resting in hammocks, reading novels for pleasure or reading just to procure a nap.

It was difficult to leave this mountain escape. Knowing it is here gives me such relief. We napped all the way home on the bus. And we were bored with our apartment, bored with the view of the sea. The mountains keep calling. But I'm also following that calling of this community here in Santo Domingo. People take care of people. Having new friends who so easily include me in these adventures and willingly set aside their own time to share family and fun and talent... How lucky am I? 



Sunday, November 6, 2016

Ex Pat October

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main...                                   (John Donne)

Celebrating our third month abroad today and it feels as if a lifetime has passed. We have a new appreciation for the geography of Santo Domingo, protected by its cliffs, its bay and its height above water since the visit with Hurricane Matthew (September 28).  Living abroad reminds me daily of how insignificant I am, and a hurricane speeds up that feeling like the double fast foward button on a remote. Days before it struck, we were partying on the Malacon and planning Marc's trip for a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.  At the time, I embraced the independence but that week brought me closer to my reliance on the communities of Santo Domingo. 

I reacted like everyone else and stocked up on groceries. Here in Santo Domingo there are many supermercados but if you are traveling by bike, the best fresh fruits and vegetable variety is at Bravo. Organic produce is truly organic and inexpensive; the farm region where they grow basil, watercress, cilantro is hours from here in Jarabacoa. 



Of course I overload my totes. And of course my keys sit on a hook at home as I stare at my locked yellow bike in front of the store. Walking the mile back without taking a shopping cart is not an option. I didn't even consider that it could be interpreted as stealing. Pretending its a workout I jog pushing it down side streets and the main road, avoiding the city sidewalk that are as gnarly as a class 4 dirt road. I'm running alongside motobikes and cars and cut thru a passage between two buildings carrying the shopping cart over piles of debris. Only then did I look over my shoulder to check for muggers. Only then did I see two men following me. I heaved that grocery cart and began striding deliberately up the stairs to the main road. I hoisted over the median and booked it to my street afforded a second look. It was just one man now. In a pink shirt. In a uniform from Bravo. 

My vision is blurred from sweat and from steam and of course I don't have my phone for translation. I open my gate and he follows me. In rapid Spanish he begins talking to me and the doorman. I'm trying to say that I'm sorry, I did not steal and that the cart will be returned. And I have not a clue as to what he is saying. Una momento- I race up to the apartment to drop the groceries, grab the bike key, my passport, my phone. I try to translate an apology or explanation as he begins to pull the cart from me and out the door. He is talking at me so rapidly, I can not keep up- I thought he mentioned his manager? I'm thinking I'll be pulled into an office for questioning, possibly the police. Will Marc forgive me for being arrested a day after his departure? Will Kata be ok staying with the neighbors a bit longer? I try to explain that I will push the cart back. And that I will prove that I left my bike locked. I will unlock it and I'm sorry, lo siento, so sorry. 
Mr. Bravo won't share the pushing of the shopping cart. For awhile we walk and sort of fight over who gets to push it. Even as I contemplate my crime I can't put up with his machismo. Finally, giving up and walk ahead, and then something in me just says run. So I did. I ran all the way back to Bravo, unlock my bike and take off on a different side road. I decided to leave the scene of my perceived crime. Sure- I had guilt and regrets but I couldn't bear the thought of Marc having to intervene with police on my behalf or being banned from the best grocery store in the city.


It turns out, the mercados hire men to push grocery carts home for people for a few pesos.  I hadn't stolen a cart, I had stolen a job and avoided a tip. Mr. Bravo wasn't lecturing me, he was telling me to let him do his job. I have sheepishly returned to shopping at Bravo but I improved my Spanish  and my listening. And I tip the grocery baggers, thank the cashiers and I wear my bike lock key as a necklace. 

If a clod be washed away by the sea  
Europe is the less.... (Donne)



I am a clod. Seriously, I spend many days evaluating my day in which I'm a big chunk of dirt that coulda, woulda shoulda done things differently. When Matthew hit the apartment and shook all the windows, the rain poured in through light fixtures and cracks in the doors, I was humbled yet it really was nothing compared to what others experience. Still, I felt the weight of karma and the need to be a better person. We had clear sky, bright sun for a day. Was this the eye of hurricane?  Intense heat propelled me to bike with Kata to the pool and find other kids. We were there only 20 minutes when rain poured down in heavy sheets. It ended so we hurried home only to find our pathway underwater. I sped ahead of Kata, down the hill and rode waist high through the water to the other side of the road. It was thrilling to spin in waters over the top tube but nerve wracking when I realized that Kata was standing forlornly still on the other side. My options- ride back with her on an unknown route or power thru and get home quickly. I left my bike and waded back towards Kata. The water, as quick as it came, was subsiding. It was no longer thigh high but knee deep. And the Dominicans in cars, notoriously known for driving dangerously, braked to let me gather her onto my back as I pushed her bike back through the street to safety.  We rode the rest of the way home unimpeded. When I pause to consider the street garbage that accumulates daily, along with the sickly animals and carcasses, and the various feces, the plastics and molded foods, I no longer find pleasure in adventure. We retreated to our home, rinsed with bleach and showered forever. The winds and rains Of Matthew were once again upon us with an accumulated force. Kata and I snuggled all night in the hopeful safety of our concrete walls and marveled at the forces of nature. The three days without school, the need to restock water or find friends brought us to the streets and the colmada. I had to interact in Spanish, I waded through more waters. I discovered what it feels like to sweat in the rain. 


As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.... (Donne)

Santo Domingo sits high on a promontory and my flooding was nothing compared to the buckled roads and swamped houses that the city workers contend with. Our cook was able to convey that her home flooded and that she needed to build a flood wall for future protection. She is a single mom and was unable to travel to us for a few days. Through out the storm, Kata and I gave sandwiches to our guards and began saving pesos for our cook. Our school is amazing at rallying for organizations and non profits. One of the new teachers is married to a UN emergency response nurse. She was on a plane within the week and headed to Haiti. Her husband worked with student clubs to organize fundraising efforts and the response was extremely positive. For a moment, it seemed that all was well in the world I know. But back in Vermont, families of the Mad River Valley were thrust into grief. In a single moment, a single senseless car chase by a man in a stolen vehicle, cost the lives  of 5 teens. Anyone could've been hit by that reckless man who stole a police car, drove backwards on the interstate smashing into oncoming vehicles. His penance, should be a constant repentance. How fragile life is. How quickly my hubris is gone. I'm now more worried than wondering,  looking with more worry and awareness of loss. I guard Kata closer. We are wearing helmets once more. Tragedy pulls at my heart longing for home. 


The rains and the sea slowly wash away sorrow. I found hope and redemption in a volunteer day with my school club Es Posibla Una Sonrisa helping children coping with poverty, AIDS and just being a kid. Sincerity rushes back in me like a wave and I am finding my place- involved in mankind.



And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee....      (Donne)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Modern World Dominican- ex pat first month


It's odd to have a dream become a reality. Fellow bookworms know exactly what I am talking about because who hasn't wanted to jump into the pages of a novel or live the storied world to escape reality? Earlier this month I strolled the Calle de las Damas in the Zone Colonial, Santo Domingo with sudden claro... and my heart leapt with joy. This is the cuidad of Julia Alvarez, this is the street of the women who demanded pavement for their feet as they walked to prayer several times a day. I am not one for constant prayer but I held my heart for a moment in honor of the Mirabals: Dede, Patria, Minerva and Theresa. I couldn't help but feel the history pulsing in the morning shadows of this Dominican sunshine. Where did Minerva live? Where did her revolutionaries meet?  I walked right out of the pages of Alvarez and into my own reality. The Mariposas archetype sets a heavy precedent. I wonder will I bring any honor to this country, to its women, and my own global community while I am here?

We stride by the home of Columbus' son, wait, he had a son? And head to  museum of Liberty honoring those who stood against Trujillo.The heat of August drove us off into a shaded sanctuary and I noticed its marble walls. This is no ordinary marble and these are not modern concrete wonders high on the hill of the Colonial Zone. The marble walls lining these city buildings are older than any city in the US; on careful examination is is marked with thousands of embedded fossils. The coral is living, it is telling me stories. Go to the beach.


The beaches of this island are like mountains of Vermont in that each is distinct and everyone has their favorite. We start with Boca Chica. It was crowded with comings and goings of beautiful people in impossible heels and the smallest of swimsuits. We learned that when you attend a resort restaurant, you can order drinks and a meal and stay as long as you want. Or as long as pale, white skin can hold out against the unforgiving sun. Kata's dream became true when a glass of frozen fresa was presented on a small platter. She sipped this in the shade, ran, flipping off the pier into... blue is not the right way to describe this sea. I'll use azul because it sounds like turquoise, aqua- marine and midnight all blended into one.

Punta Cana was a two hour drive through a tropical storm. We waded through the flooded street to a tiny hotel sandwiched between two resorts. At first, it seemed that I had made a grave mistake. Our suite promised a kitchen but I guess it never promised a stove top or refrigerator or sink. It delivered a simple slow dribble for a shower and one tiny double bed. Maybe the point was to drive us out of our nest and into the lobby where fresh mango and coffee awaited us. Or maybe the point of simple accommodations was the means for pushing us out the door into a quaint street of locals and straight thru a tiny gate that led us to a palm shaded beach. Each resort claims its own beach entrance. Ours was small with only sixteen chaise lounges and a one man bar. We ran 5 strides into the water, soft sand underfoot. We could swim or walk for miles in each direction, so we did.

Punta Cana seemed so small on Google Maps- I had no idea that our guided snorkel tour of coral reefs was still an hour away. And Uber isn't in Punta Cana. We 'what'sapp' another teaching couple and caught a ride to Playa Cana, getting to our snorkel just in time. We jumped into a small motorboat and rode out a 1/4 mile to the edge of the reef.  Following a route laid out in rope on the sea floor, we snorkeled in an out of corals, viewing schools of snapper and barracuda. Did I mention coming eyeball to eyeball with the large singleton barracuda? It regarded me with gringo disdain. I swam through a bed of seaweed thinking this would be magical. The seaweed cut up my arms and face and left a stinging rash in its wake.  We recovered on a beach with the cerveza & my first burger since leaving Vermont. The tropical storms were swirling out to sea. Some boats abandoned the waters for safe harbor. The blue/ black colors chased across the vast expanses of sand and sea similar to the purple/ orange reflections I have seen in New Mexican deserts. New colors, different expanses, I like feeling small and insignificant. Marc and I quietly and almost simultaneously said, "Hemingway" as we photographed a lone dinghy abandoned on the beach. Salty and dry,

“Now is no time
to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do 
with that there is- Old Man and the Sea

Juan Dolio is only an hour away. We staggered towards her. The night before was a long one of my own making. Kata was staying with the neighbors, Marc and I entertained on our patio with all intentions of leaving early to attend the first Andy Warhol exhibit ever to hit Santo Domingo but we flirted too long with Dominican time and took off on our single speed bikes to ride the city. Because road signals and lines are a mere suggestion, we were about to do something slightly dangerous; courage fueled with intoxication -we navigated side streets to Noca, an upscale district 7 km away, missing the exhibit by minutes. We found solace in the glowing lights of a random Noca colmada- ice frosted El Presidentes,  a random concert and a fast ride home at 2am. Again, Hemingway is in my brain. Did he not mention to know a city is to know its bars? My fuzzy brain jarred awake to find a midnight text & invitation to my friend's beach house. I packed 3 light bags, some books and a brick of cheese- I had nothing else in the fridge! We sped passed Boca Chica this route out of the city becoming familiar. We pull off on a sudden side street and down a small whitewashed road crowded with solid concrete homes and apartment. A man greets the vehicle and swings wide these massive doors transporting us into another dimension. I now know what it feels like to be on the other side of the wardrobe in a C.S. Lewis story. We stepped out of the whitewash and into the blues and greens of a hide away beach head. The third floor apartment is lovely and I can't pull my eyes away from the open patio. The whole living room/ kitchen is separated from paradise by only an awning and a sliding glass door. My friend Jenn has arranged a simple wide couch bed piled high with pillows; the view draws the eyes through a frame of palms and mango foliage towards rhythmic crashing waves that roll in on a beach wider than that of Boca Chica. The clear sea is darkened by grasses thick on tables of maroon colored coral and so shallow that it seems as if everyone is walking on water. I see immediately why this beach is a personal paradise for Jenn's family.
Their beach leads into a mermaid pools. An oasis of light azul water, a natural lagoon surrounded by coral. There are several smaller tidal pools that dot the expanse with that icy blue color.  People wade out carefully avoiding fragile sea urchins to sit with their lovely beverages and their laughter. I lie as I would in a bathtub, floating and bumping along the sandy bottom of such a lagoon.. I'm nursing a running injury and find that this soak is perfect for the body and soul. Ever so often a wave sends what feels to be a cooler current of water. The Vermonter in me seizes upon every current and I see Kata do the same.

Juan Dolio is a smaller scattering of hotels and restaurants, nothing too ostentatious in comparison to Punta Cana and I already want to come back. Did I speak too soon? A helicopter lands, several Dominican celebrities teetering on high heels step out to sashay over to an all night Corona sponsored DJ Jam.  There's a temporary stage, lights, drones filming people swarming toward the music.  The stage blocks the beach so that ticket holders can swim. I see our friends from the night ride out in the waves and swim past security towards them.  I find these encounters enchanting and such a change from my reclusive persona back in the US.  Stars come out, Kata is cartwheeling in the dark with Jenn's daughter why we sip chilled wine and rest from a lovely meal.  I plan on waking up, heading to the porch to begin the day with novels I need to use in the classroom. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is waiting for me. I could feel guilty, juxtaposing George and Lenny's predicament with my own luck. Instead I choose to reread that passage about simple dreams. George kicking back and saying, "to hell with work" living in a home with food and shelter and simple necessities. Could I find such a simple dream here? For now I have another Alvarez novel, In the Name of Salomé. I'm in search of more magic.