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.







Thursday, September 1, 2016

Modern World Dominican- Expat Week 2

In this Dominican whirlwind of daily ups and downs I look forward to a new favorite Saturday morning sound. It is that of the mango man. He cycles by with a whistle prelude, waits and begins calling out in a rhythmic voice:  "plantana, mango, pina aguacate". There is little traffic on a Saturday morning so the sound is clear and because of him I can now ask for these items anywhere I go. https://youtu.be/LVD7BOIZNNw

Another positive comes from the nightly homework I give myself. I slowly and painstakingly writing a note each to M, the woman who takes care of us and our new home. M makes a killer eggplant guisada that, depending on our hunger, we drizzle or dump, over the rice and beans.

Meat is very expensive so I'm discovering that locals eat tons of fruit and veggies and are mostly vegetarian. By building a relationship with M  through many miscommunications, we seem to understand that life is easiest when we let go of control. She makes most of the cooking decisions. We happily run out to hunt for oddities and grocery store abundances that transpire into fragrant smells of la cocina. Comfort food helps this place begin to feel like home.


Libertad- a scorching trip to the Colonial Zone after Marc did his homework on finding la bicicleta. A website, emails, & foot searches in the city secured the name of a man who sold bikes out of his apartment. For cash. Questionable or not it was an experience. Inspiration added to Marc's fluency in Spanish. So, we tested several on the streets and on the roof of his home before settling on single speeds.

We rode home along the Malecón. It did little
to separate us from short sea cliffs, rolling seas and the heavy traffic of Santo Domingo. The sea spray  periodically splashed up, seemingly beautiful until we looked down at the swirling refuse of glass, plastic and all that is wrong with humanity. I rode fast keeping my eyes on a spray that might carry a broken bottle in its force. My gringo responsibility- recycle and do more to help this country save itself from this.
Bikes bring freedom- We can outride the humidity enroute to school. Kata is no longer trapped in the apartment or the small park of Mirador Sur. We have yet to find a friend her age who rides and it is somewhat disarming to have her rolling along in traffic right behind me. But the freedom to get to a grocery store or a mall or anywhere over rules entrapment. We are somewhat self reliant now.


Downs- We took an uber at the wrong time of day only to sit in the notorious traffic of Santo Domingo. Our “Uber hombre” zipped wrong down one ways, and over medians to deliver us to a less than important destination. When we left the stores to head home. We discovered how much of a battle takes place in the city between taxi drivers and Uber. Taxi drivers intimidates me w/ shouts, "no Uber!" I complied but then none would or could give me a ride. Thinking it was my poor communication skills I showed them maps, called mi esposo and made them talk to Marc for directions to no avail. Maybe they couldn’t read a map? Now its 7:45pm it was dark, Kata was scared and I'd had it. A Haitian coconut seller assisted me in French but the taxi hombres still sat without providing a ride. Women jumped in and out of rapid conversations on my behalf and still nothing. A few full taxis that lacked doors rattled by with offers for us to hold on to the fenders. Finally a man who spoke English helped me cross to the other side of a street to another mall where the right taxi there took us home in 5 minutes. 8:30 on a school night. He too couldn’t understand my map but followed my directions of izquerda & derecho. In addition, the word " cerca" is now in my daily speech.
Ups & Downs. Humidity is a constant. We’ve adjusted from 3-4 showers daily to 2. Everything changed with the onset of the tropical storm season. The winds hit briefly sending some relief from humidity. At 2 in the morning I was dragging in laundry from the deck with furtive glances at the sea, the electric sky. Downpours followed and both excitement and fear surged thru me. Would we have a storm day off from school? Nope, just another day in the DR. Transport to school meant options, Walk knee deep in water, wait for the bus or bike? We chose bike. Taking higher streets and bike fenders kept us dry. Classrooms have AC but the covered walkways between buildings are open to the elements. It was my first experience seeing walls sweat with condensation as AC met humidity. The journey home was a soaking experience as rain pelted from all directions. Two day of steady rain followed. Cars near the Malacon flooded, our Mango man stayed away. People continue to ride or wade to work but still stop and to say, “Hola how are you? And it's important to always always say hello back.
I met a colleague whom I now count as a friend. Jen Legra's advice on living here is met with great fanfare http://theplanetd.com/what-my-kids-learned-from-living-in-the-dominican-republic/ - and it has helped the city open up to me. I now get supplies at our colmada, I wait to let people smile and speak slowly for me. And I shower appreciation on M’s cooking now that I can tell her it is more than just bueno. It’s tan saboroso.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Modern World Dominican- first week abroad

Marc, Kata and I have left everything we know that was normal to us to plunge headlong into adventure here in the Caribbean.  I'd like to start this blog with some relativity. The Dominican Republic is relative in size to Pennsylvania or Mississippi. Vermont is relative in size to Haiti. Together the whole island is almost 60,000 square miles or a bit bigger than the state of Georgia. So far, every day is hot and humid. It's the consistency in the weather that is the hardest for me to understand. Relative to Vermont, I need only one raincoat and maybe an umbrella for shade instead of a coat or sweater for every 10 degrees of weather above and below zero. Relative to Vermont I need many shoes. Women here wear the highest impossible heels with grace and always, always dress for notice. Casual does not mean casual. I'm sorry Bernie Sanders, but I can't wear that tshirt with your crazy hair and cute socialist face to a BBQ anymore. Yes, I wore a tshirt and shorts to a BBQ with air conditioning, gloved waiters and women in evening gowns. My name is Whitney, I'm a recovering Gringo...


Story Published through Search Associates about our career move.

First day in the apartment on Calle Ramon del Orbe. We are on the top floor so we lucked out with a rooftop patio and a view of the sea. Not luck really. We are teaching at a school that understands the value of keeping people feeling safe, secure and content in order to foster that spirit of strong academic learning and hard work from educators. Each educator gave the school an idea of their lifestyle and needs, the staff worked to find apartments that could match this. We requested a quiet street and the views of the sea were a bonus. The nightly breeze means we seldom need AC.  Of course, the one evening I needed it, it broke.  That same evening, a rain storm hit, I pushed all of the rain into a gutter which was clogged. Our ceiling in the kitchen began leaking and chipping away at the same time that the plumbing under the sink fell apart. Each day in the DR is filled with ups and downs, epic wins and epic fails. At least I sleep completely exhausted. Well, not exactly.



Twice I was awakened by the sounds of parties at 3 am. We are next to the UN, embassy row and some posh apartments with pools- (we hope to make friends?) Gazing from the patio I could hear people singing in chorus, some Spanish song. A solo would ripple up to me and then the chorus would boom in. It was worth the lost hour of sleep. The other time, I awoke to a bocci? ball party. Everyone was cheering and counting and cheering someone who must've been winning? I can't wait to actually understand what it is that people are saying. 

Did I mention that we live near a park? It's a lush space filled with green grasses, mango groves, flowering trees. Paved pathways swerve through the park under the canopy. I see many dog walkers, kids on bikes, couples old and young. I can't wait to learn the names of all the fauna and the wild chickens that roam. I got up and ran at 6am in the park right near the house. 
Don't worry- hundreds of people workout and run or race bikes on the road which is closed to vehicles. The whole 10 km is lined with police and security volunteers who are allowed to ride in on motorcycles  


  I think they must volunteer just to show off. They watch you work out. It's a bit weird but so so safe. The first day I was only able to run 2 sweaty miles. And it was a beautiful run. Marc and I share the morning time. Another day I went it was already crowded. As I approached the end of the roadway I noticed a workout station with outdoor ellipticals and a Zumba class. People were jumping in and joining so I did too. I can't do it proper justice but it required big smiles, passionate movement with very expressive thrusting of all body parts that mamma gave me.  My pelvis and thighs and breasts are actually supposed to move. In opposing directions. And up, down, around.... I'm so used to dancing my warm up like a Vermont runner and then there is this.....  That made my day. I actually felt awake for the first time. 

We survived the first four days with lots of repairs on the apartment, remember that ceiling leak? And the installation of wifi. Marc buzzed himself into the apartment, dripping with sweat and proudly holding a large tv. We promised Kata that she could have one if we moved to a new country. That was probably a shady deal. Whatever. Most of the channels are in Spanish, but at least we had some Olympic coverage. She really wanted to see the gymnastic events but the DR is devoted to volleyball and wrestling. So we watched that instead. Internet is fast even though the powerlines running up and down the streets look like a tangled web of danger. I've yet to have a phone working. I'm so used to being connected to social media that it feels like camping when I go days without it. 

ah life at the Lagos. My language skills are pretty weak. I speak mostly in Spanish nouns with very few verbs in my vocabulary.  "Coffee- me", "food yes" "door". So lots of miscommunications.

I need to explain something to Bernie Sanders. Before he chides me personally on the evils of capitalism and the dangers of socio economic gaps I must admit I love having a doorman and a maid. I'm completely terrified by the idea and I find myself having difficulty talking about this service publicly. But our maid is really a member of a welcome committee assigned to me to be patient and kind. She will teach me Spanish if she would learn to speak very slowly, with nouns and fewer verbs. She needs to think of me as a 3 year old. She loves kids and hugs Kata every time she sees her. She is great with Kata. I came home from school and M---- our maid, greeted me but gave me a lecture that I think I understood. "
Americans are messy, you in particular need to put your shoes away.  You are obesssed with recycling and leave messes everywhere. Get a respectable coffee pot - what is this Aeropress thing anyways? Why don't you have meat in your fridge- how can you cook without it? No wonder your daughter is starving. Here is a list of necessitos, get it or I won't be your friend anymore."

Actually, she is super sweet and probably said nothing of the sort. I bought everything on the list. She even took me to the store, we bought the right soaps and scrups and brooms and coffee pots. I guess I still need a mortar and pestle to make her my true friend. I'm working on this...And did I mention that she cooks for us? Shopping and cooking have become monumental chores. But I come home to her Bandera- the Dominican Flag otherwise known as rice, beans & chicken. She has a special way of dripping the beans over the rice like a sauce. I slow down and eat too much. 

Kata is pretty amazing. She has not been able to run back and forth or  do cartwheels or walk around naked like we could at home in Vermont. She seems a bit stir crazy in the adjustment to urban living, tropical living and such. But the nanny/ maid came to school a day early and Kata was fine with saying good bye, walking  with her all the way to our apartment by herself and spending the day with her even though the house temperature was well over 80, humid. I took her to the park last night and we cheered her on as she did cartwheel after cartwheel atop the concrete park benches. Many passing Dominicans cheered her on too.



Our doormen always smile. They sometimes help us make phone calls to order 5 gallon botellons of agua. 
Every day I begin a simple conversation with either Leon or Luis. "Hola, como esta?" 
And then I have nothing more to say. So I start talking in nervous English. They always smile and respond with "ok". Sometimes I write down a sentence, practice it and then go downstairs to tell them that I will be going for a run or visiting the neighbor. They smile and say, "ok". When I get nervous I immediately respond to people in French out of habit from Vermont trips to Quebec. Finally Leon mentioned that he spoke French. I responded gleefully with my own French. He responded back. "ok".  Lately, I find myself in conversation with Marc, telling him what I need done for the next day or what issues arose in my daily trips to the store. He responds, "ok". hmmmmm.

General living for me is based on how coffee is made. And here is it always amazing.  Food is really cheap. $.50 for a bag of rice, mangos the size of Kata's head for .20. Bottled water is delivered by a man on a motorbike in 3 minutes. for $1.30- you call, speak bad Spanish and go to the window to hear him drive fast through the city right to your door. But get the wrong food or item and it is expensive.  Herbal Essence shampoo- $8.00, pasta? $3.00. Despite our best intentions some of us had diarrhea last night, all night, every hour. I won't mention names. I stayed awake all night feeding people water and helping them clean up. I went to work exhausted and then my system began to crumble. I was able to stay just ahead of whatever could've happened. I had my Pepto Bismol To Go, and several expats had stronger stuff on hand. The organic way- Papaya and probiotic pills helped me stumble through my Friday inservice and then stumble home for siesta.  Lessons learned? life moves slowly.  Patience is necessary for survival. Every down is followed by an up, tomorrow is another day.