Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So, here you are…
                No matter where you go, there you are. We know that, right? Of course, we do, and, funny how even though we know that, it doesn’t go away. Normally, you learn something and then it goes away. Maybe it gets absorbed and becomes a part of our DNA. But with this one, it keeps coming back, keeps turning up tapping me on the shoulder. There’s another way to hear that wisdom: so, I’m here.
                This blog, I have to keep reminding myself, is meant to attempt to answer the question I posed when I was reading blogs and interviewing RPCVs, returned PC volunteers, and was never answered: what happens? How does a person go from being in the US, working, living, actually wrapped in the life of the US, whatever that means, and leave that life and become a PCV, living in another country and within (if that’s either actually desirable or possible) another culture. It’s complicated; that was never in question. I knew it would be complicated. Normal respect for another culture tells us that. We know instinctively that we are setting ourselves on a journey of depth. Because we knew that, it scared us and we wanted to learn more about it, arm ourselves, prepare ourselves however we could for it.
                So, no matter where you go (or for however long, and however hard you try) there you are. That is still true. As with something that changes one’s life, like the loss of a limb, say, one realizes that from that point forward, one’s life will always be without that limb. That’s just the way it will be and that fact becomes absorbed in the basic fabric of that life. Got it. It just happens. But, unlike un-recallable, un-fixable things like a lost limb, the person you bring with you is changeable, fixable, if you will, or we hope it is. It’s part of why, for example, I signed up for the Peace Corps. I wanted to change. I recognized the need to change certain fairly fundamental aspects of myself so I could live more happily and constructively when I got back, if I got back. …And that was one of the risks/possibilities of entering the Peace Corps; maybe I won’t be going back, maybe I’ll be so changed, so woken up, so find my true calling (there’s always the risk of actually finding one’s true calling…like putting oneself in the path of possible adventure and actually encountering one, there is a real risk of getting what you dared/were foolish enough to ask for,) that you don’t go back, you stay and do the new thing you’ve found within yourself.
                So this is, of course, no secret, a voyage within. Perhaps the most profound experiences of my life—and aspects of my life—is my mental illness, that misty aspect that drifts around me, distorting my sense of the world. On the positive side—and maybe there are only positive sides—I have learned, for example, that, under stress, I have to be even more vigilante about my diet. I must not have caffeine. I learned I must stay away from alcohol and have never played with it since I learned, and proved, that, but I also find that this experience brings emotions to the surface and being bi-polar is a flaw of the emotional system. I can be lying on my back in bed in the early morning, my usual think time, and find tears running down the sides of my face. Then I recognize a weight on my chest and, brought from my reverie, think: skewz-me, what the hell is this all about?
                I usually do not get an answer and don’t turn one up probing the likely suspects. This is hard being here this way and doing what I am trying—seemingly unsuccessfully, so that might be a clue—to do. And I’m lonely, hungry in many ways, unable to understand anyone to any real depth due to persistent language ability deprivation (P-LAD for short, I think I’ll keep that one, every day, same shit, can’t understand a thing anybody’s saying to me, gotten so it doesn’t even tire me out any more) the things one should expect being an older volunteer in a world 95% of which is all of and about younger people, people in their early 20’s mostly, being excluded from the social aspects that have always been at least available to me if not easy, all of that and probably more. So, like living without that limb, I blot the tears on the edge of the sheet, note the question mark shaped wet spots, wonder if they’ll make faint, white salt question marks, and get up. Maybe I’ll find an answer, maybe I won’t; life is full of mysteries; here’s another one; get in line, buddy. Being busy does chase away whatever that was all about. Get busy.
                Sometimes I see myself in the movies. It’s just a flash recognition, shorter than a deja vue, there I am in the movies; I am living a George Carlin Monologue. I am too smart for my own fucking good while being nowhere near smart enough to have that be of any actual use to me. The monologue is complete with the foul language. I renew my age old resolution to strike out the foul language.
                Touch deprivation. Some stand-up comedian could do an hour and a half about touch deprivation…in America? In a heart-beat. And there is so much sincerity and believed-in deprivation here in a Peace Corps service that stand-up comedians, with my sense of humor, anyway, could make of it a career. This is so funny it’s sad and so sad it’s funny. From another report: “Lost? Sure, there were times when I didn’t know where I was for several months, but I was never lost.” I’m not lost.
                I think that I have never been “in love.” I look out and I turn back to feel what I am feeling. What’s there? I pause for that reflection or inspection. I feel something but I don’t know what it is. I am always feeling something. Feelings swirl through me. I am here bathed in them. Sometimes they almost carry me off. Is any of that love? Hard to tell. Knowing me, I doubt it. I have to deal with that because I think love is one of the things up for inspection here in a PC service. It’s being stretched and pulled and pushed and prodded to see what it really is for each of us. I think it’s different for each of us, and because I can’t know about anyone else’s, I am concentrating on my own. That’s appropriate. These are my problems, this is the ‘there you are’ part of no matter where you go…the who, even if the why and how are forever out of reach.
                I had some crushes when I was in junior high. And 6th grade. I wanted to go to the dance with this girl. 6th grade? How old are you? 11. Debbie Griffin. My god. Maybe the first and maybe the last. And I knew even then that this was dangerous stuff and I’d better keep clear of it, not let it out of control. No, she didn’t go to the dance with me. I’ll blame it on her. What the hell. She’s my age, not that irresistible 11 year old who was moving to California so couldn’t go (and wouldn’t have I dare say, in any case, I was hardly a prize and she was a red-headed doll, prettiest girl in the class and maybe the smartest.) She’s almost precisely my age give or take a few, now unimportant months, she’s 63 and, as a wise friend said of women his age, she must now look more or less like my grandmother. And she’s had her kids and a career and is retired to play with her grand kids in comfort somewhere and is most probably as wise as my grandmother, which leaves me way behind. I don’t know much and I am here to learn something more about that. I am still growing up.
                It is possible that the ability to love is genetically encoded, or maybe it’s hardwired in in those first critical years. Whatever it is, I seem to be without it or some critical aspect of it. Or, there’s another possibility, that being that I am so guarded and have become so tough or callused that love has no power over me. When in a storm, it’s hard to recognize subtle differences in it. If love is pain and mental illness is pain all over the place, then what’s the difference between this pain and another? For the longest time no way I could tell and say, oh, this pain is from love; that’s different and should be treated differently. It all hurt and I got used to that being the reality and got over it, the roar subsided into the elevator music of life, the pain dulled and blended and maybe I lost some of the finer points along the way. I am capable of loving someone and then cutting her free out of my own stubbornness and just living with the pain, absorbing it like someone living without that limb, like I have lived with my fused ankle.
                …Like stopping smoking; it’s easy: you just decide that from this moment on you will not smoke, no matter what. It’s that simple. The hurt is just a part of who you are. Do not look for relief. It’s not there. Just relax, accept it, get to know it, it’s going to be with you from now on and it will become your friend, you’ll see. It’s easy. And with the smoking, the urge to smoke drifted away after a few years and was replace with pain whenever cigarette smoke comes to my nose. It actually hurts my sinuses. It’s painful. I don’t know if an ex-smoker has ever told you that before. And I encourage that pain, deliberately. I encourage my distaste for cigarette smoke b/c the other option is to like it and be attracted to it, or might be, and that’s enough for me to ask that those I know to have patience with this flaw in my character. Been there, cured myself, don’t ever, ever want to go back. That has a cost. Call it a scar.
                But the hard part and the easy part is making that decision, getting off the fence and just accepting the whatever-happens-from-now-on decision that cigarettes are in the past, period. It’s really simple, and, given that this is just a matter of how much pain you can handle, you decide to see it through to the end no matter what and stop smoking. …And then it’s easy, so amazingly easy. It just is. It’s a new you. A real change in who you are (if not in who you think you are…and that difference is a subject for another post, and it sure applies to me.) So, at least in that sense, no matter where you go, there you are, is not necessarily cast in stone. You can change who you are.
                I stopped smoking cigarettes, in college. I had to leave my living group (I was a Delta Tau Delta fraternity member) and all the privileges therein—it was especially hard to leave the girls, the parties, the highs, the sex—and I had to change many of my friends and a lot of other stuff that one might put on the pain side, but, there is an interesting thing about pain that I think everyone knows though they might not like to hear or remember it: the mind forgets pain. It makes a choice and emphasizes what feels or felt good, and pain, though perhaps even the greater experience in both time and extent, is left to fade until it’s a theoretical awareness, a “yeah, there must have been pain in there, too, but I can’t really recall it now.”
                It took me 40 + years to get over the smoking dreams. Anybody tell you about the smoking dreams? You’ve heard of school dreams, when you’re in school and you haven’t done your homework or studied for the test you barely remember was scheduled for today? “Smoking dreams” are like that. For me they go like this: I’m in a social situation—often in a diner with my girlfriend, and some other kids, some older, are there and I am feeling out-classed or otherwise uncomfortable and out of place, with no way to be cool and with nothing to do with my hands and I light up a cigarette. I don’t know where it comes from, maybe I go through the familiar ritual of putting coins in the cigarette machine and pulling the knob, Marlboros or Winstons, hear the ka-chung sound and the double clunk of the pack falling to me, and then smacking the pack authoritatively on the table top and peeling aside the cellophane wrapping, then the foil and tapping one out, the earthy, clean, rich smell of the tobacco filling my awareness, the air around me) and then everything’s okay, I am in control…and at the same instant I realize that I will never be alright again without a cigarette and that I am, again, hooked. It’s been about 10 years since I had one of those dreams. They just stopped happening. Now that’s a powerful habit. That’s a drug of note. It plagued the better part of an entire life and I only smoked for a few years in my late teens and early twenties. I think I stopped when I was 20, started when I was 18 or 19, stopped many times: during the summer so I could surf, during wrestling season, soccer, started again during the first round of exams of any semester in Engineering school. You need a good reason to stop. Health is too abstract, especially for a rebellious youth (that’s a redundant phrase…and that’s why tobacco companies target the young.) My reason was that I wanted to smell fresh air again. When you’re smoking you never smell fresh air. Fresh air is a human right, it is life, the life of everything. I wanted that back. I still think that’s a good reason.

Monday, April 30, 2012

bike trip
                This story is so long that I can’t write it so a sketch with some photos will have to do. During Semana Santa,  4 PCVs left from my apartment, rode through Jarabacoa to Manabao (where we had pica pollo for lunch) then on to La Cienega where we slept on the porch of the lodge at the entrance to the park where Pico Duarte is located. That was the first day. I can’t tell you the altitude change (no Internet at the moment) but there were some fairly long, steep hills, at first on pavement, then on dirt. The next day we rode up into the mountains above La Cienega bound for La Constanza, an agricultural city in a high valley. We stayed there two nights, mostly to recover some of our energy so we could tackle the next stage of the trip. So, on day 4 we headed for Valley Nuevo. Like the trip from La Ciénega to La Constanza, we spent most of our riding time in 1,1 (lowest gear,) which, it turned out, was just a hair faster than walking the bikes. Walk the bikes we did, some of us often, some occasionally. Walking,  while arguably a little less efficient, gives the bicycling muscles a rest. In each of the uphill days we spent about 4 hours climbing roads that were muddy, slippery, deeply rutted (mostly by erosion, not tire tracks) and so steep that I, at least, often found it hard to keep the front wheel of my bike on the road to maintain direction.
                We wore packs on our backs. Some of us also had gear tied to our handlebars. None of us had bike racks. I have one coming for the next trip, though I will still not have panniers. I’ll tie the pack to the bike. The bikes, BTW, were inexpensive mountain bikes (~ 400 $US here in the DR, new, weighing between 25 and 30 pounds…that’s an educated guess based on carrying mine up and down a set of stairs every day.) All had front shocks, only.
                Back to the trip. We were really lucky (or unlucky, whichever) with the weather. As we climbed into the Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo, the highest park in the DR with the highest road in the DR, near as we can tell. Sometimes we were bicycling at between 8000 and 9000 feet, according to Google Earth. We worked for hours climbing and, still climbing but inside the park boundary, finally reached a tourist retreat called Villa Pajón owned by the family of a friend. We rode in, at my request, to get some badly needed water and to say, hello, to my friend. He wasn’t there, as it turned out. We arrived there in fairly nice weather. As we gathered beneath the porch roof, it suddenly darkened, thunder boomed and it began to rain, pretty hard, and it hardly let up after that. We’d arrived at about 1:30 with a long way to go…and, we felt, still most of the afternoon to get there, if we got on with it. The rain was cold as was there air at that altitude and we were inadequately dressed for it. And, anyway, I’ve done a fair share of riding in the rain and find it pretty pointless. With rain coats and pants on, I have always managed to have a tropical rainstorm inside the rain suit while the temperate rainfall was going on outside. The summer I rode in Europe was one of the rainiest on record to that time in many of the countries I visited. I learned to just stay in my tent and snooze to the sound of the rain on the tent or, otherwise and anyway, stay out of the rain. Rain gear is for emergencies…and if you’re not in one, I’d suggest you not go out of your way to create one, such as by leaving a warm dry place in the cold and rain, at altitude, without warm clothes, to head off on an uncertain road for an unknown distance to no certain water, food or shelter.
                At first we were offered the water we’d asked for. Next cassava bread biscuits appeared. Then, as the rain continued, we were offered a place, inside the lodge, by a newly made fire. It’s cold up there and all the cabins and the main house, have fireplaces. My friend has a deal with the forest rangers in the park that enables the lodge to have (downed, found) firewood for the lodges. Warmer (we’d cooled after stopping but were still wet from the up-hill workout/ride,) we were drying by the fire when the family laid a table for us and served us lunch, a delicious fish soup. We discussed what to do. We were told there was a cabin available. No price was named. I know the lodge is expensive. It’s the only one up there and it is beautiful. See pictures. We decided that if the rain had not let up by 2:30, we’d stay. The rain slowed, then seemed to stop and the moment we began gathering ourselves to get back on the road, it darkened and the rain came down again, hard.
                I suggested, it being the Saturday before Easter Sunday, that, if we were paying attention, and, keeping the possibility of miracles in mind—our present location and the offer held in one hand weighed against the hour, weather and other uncertainties held in the other—we might just consider the sequence of events and the amazing offer that had been made us and simply relax and stay. We walked the bikes through the next pause in the rain to our cabin, bought firewood for our own fire and got together some food (there’s a small community some miles back the way we’d come, and a mile or so off the main road, and it has a colmado that had spaghetti and there was someone with a moto we could pay to take one of us there and back) and talked and played cards till late. We’d offered to chop wood for the family and, so, learned about the way the firewood is provided and that there was nothing we could do but relax.
                The following morning we got a start not as early as we might have, and continued climbing for another couple of hours. The forest up there is pine with lichen hanging from the branches, very different from where any of us live in the DR. That day, day 5, turned out to be the longest day of the trip and as it wore on, we realized that we’d have been foolish to have tried to make that trip in a single day. In fact, it’s most likely that we’d not have made it. The scenery down the other side of the mountains, out of the park, is stunning. Again, look at the pictures. We were running from rain most of the day and were in clouds some of the time. In better weather the vast expanse of the valleys the ridges of which we were riding down would have been laid out for us. Even so, wow!
                In San Jose de Ocoa we ate lunch and then went to the bus station to put our bikes on a bus and get to the capital. Nobody would take our bikes. At around 4 PM in a light drizzle (the rain finally had over taken us) we realized we had to get on to Cruce de Ocoa, some 30 km further where we were told, there is a bus stop and we’d be then be able to put our bikes on a bus. We rode, outdistanced the rain again and made it out to Cruce de Ocoa in about an hour and a half. On that road, now paved, stopping at a colmado for water, I asked the distance and road to the Cruce. I was told it was, “Only 5 km and all down hill.” That might become a slogan for our ride. It turned out to be 13 km and far from all down-hill.
                At the Cruce there were many buses stopping on their way to the capital and with much happy anticipation we went in search for the bus. We had one almost-taker, someone who thought he could tie our bikes to the rear bumper of the bus, a rather robust and extended affair. I even got out my multi tool and turned my handlebars sideways to make it more possible for that to happen. No luck. He gave up.
                Finally we found a bola (free ride) in the back of a pickup truck loaded with some softish, tarped stuff and set out for a hair-raising ride in the rain that had, again, overtaken us, the cold rain pelting my upper back and shoulders hard enough to sting through my rain jacket. In the capital, we headed for a hotel we knew had hot water and took a room. No hot water. So, after cold showers, we went for pizza. The pizza was real and as advertised. It was great.
This is taken from high on the road from Jarabacoa to Manabao. It's paved. This looks down onto the river Yaque del Norte which meets the Jimenoa river in Jarabacoa. At this point the road is curving wildly up the mountainside. A lot of altitude is gained in these steep turns. I am always surprised to see how much of the mountains sides are apparently stripped of trees as you see in the distance in this pix. I wonder how and when that happened. Plants grow fast here, fortunately, b/c if they didn't these mud hills would have long ago been washed into the sea.

This is the longest and steepest but not the only hill between Manabao and La Cienega. These folks are walking their bikes. Riding, as I did, might not have been the best decision. Walking was just a hair slower and gives the walker a valuable rest. And we're all together. It's not a race. Nobody is done for the day until everyone is done for the day. The road to La Cienega is not paved though there is (rare) evidense here and there that it once was.

The main colmado in town. We ate dinner in the tiny restaurant at the very right of this pix.

Looking back at La Cienega. It had rained all night as we slept and the mud road is slick, erroded and steep. The mud, which is infused with fine sand, a redish mud-sand mix, wet and sticky as it dried out in the sun, stuck to the bikes, wheels, derailleurs, brakes, everything. We wore out the brakes on downhill sections of the trip with this glued-on sand as an abrasive. At the end of the trip I was almost down to the metal backing of my brake pads.

We slept here the night we arrived in La Cienega. We were given pads and sleeping bags by the park service. I got bitten up by bugs that night, something like bedbugs. Perhaps you get what you pay for. The stay was free. Those bug bites have left colored marks on my body. This is not the first time I"ve had such bites and the older ones are visible 6 months later as colored discs.

Speaking "friend" in the local Elvish tongue. It is said that there's a guy living near this gate who has a key.... We even thought we might have seen him passing on his moto.... When without a key, improvise.

I've got lots of pictures of this road and most of them look a lot like this. I imagine these ruts are water errosion from the water following tire tracks. That's just a guess. We'd ride up these hills which are so steep I had trouble keeping my front wheel on the road. I'd pedal leaning forward and try to keep a line. We'd have to cross the ruts. There'd be places where this can be done, riding. We'd ride on the ridges between ruts. My bike tires slipped off the ridges a number of times. It's hard to get going again after stopping on these pitches. And a note about carying a time I'm tying the pack to a rack. My back hurt after several hours of carying it, and I think it only weighed 10 pounds or so.

And though we had been kind of lost earlier, this is the road. There was one half-hearted, wandering moto track on it and from this we learned that the farms behind us, while still over the ridge and on the La Constanza side, oriented to La Cienega, Manabao and Jarabacoa (ands probably La Vega and Santiago as these things go,) not La Constanza. Would this bridge hold a Jeep today? Apparently it did in 2007 when Jeeps did this trip as posted on Google Earth. We loved the remoteness of this road. It's a beautiful track. The trick is doing the trip and being strong enough and having enough time to enjoy it. There's no point in being rushed or troubled here. We rode carefully and mindfully through this section. No accidents or incidents.

The boys at breakfast at the Rincon Gourmet.

The way outaheah. A look down the road we'll take the next morning...into those mountains. Can't say we weren't warned.

Looking back at La Constanza as we ride up the road to the Valle Nuevo natn'l park.

Waiting for our group to ride up. Constanza in background.

After the first longish climb, though on pretty good road, we had to drop down into this valley before climbing again. We climbed the rest of the day for as long as our bicycling day lasted... but it was another 4 hours up, some of us often walking the bikes. You can see the country we're headed into in the distance. As the steep, often walked hours passed, I suggested that if it continued like this, we'd wind up on the moon. Just how much "up" can there be in a road? So I suggest, now, that our trip be called "Senderos del Cielo," trails to the sky or trails to heaven--both fit--and become a classic Peace Corps bike trip. 

We stopped here, on the way up to the top of the road through Valle Nuevo to say hi to a friend, if he was there. He wasn't. As we were there, a thunder storm came in and, there we were. It persisted. We were invited to stay in a fortuitously empty cabin, an invitation we gladly accepted. It's wonderful that we did. We got to see and experience the resort which we would not have done otherwise. As a result of that experience, we learned what a gem Villa Pajón really is and highly recommend it to visitors. Come on up. The entire trip, especially with the stay at Villa Pajón is one of the marvels of the DR.

The table being prepaired for us for lunch in the lodge while we warmed by the fire and cold rained fell outside.

Our cabin at Villa Pajón.

The very welcome fire in our cabin. It was cold up there at night. Fire wood cost 300 pesos, about 8 US dollars. We used less than half of it, were plenty warm, and left the remainder for the next folks. We played cards well into the night.

I have many photos of this sometimes lick-and-a-prayer road through the park. Here Dan pauses to appreciate perspective. The drop-away here, and in many places is...shall we say...awesome, kinda tickles the backs of your knees. It gives you that coveted flying without actually leaving the ground feeling.

High valley in the Valle Nuevo park.

The trees at the top of the DR's highest road. We had this kind of dry high Western US feeling landscape for a couple of hours of riding through the highest part of the park.

Winding through Valle Nuevo.

A little more of Trujillo's vanishing highway. The white lines are irrigation tubes that have been washed or avallanced off the mountain side above and lies in disarray. As the mountain rises above the road, so it falls away. This was a wet day.

Los Piramides. A brief lunch stop. We were being chased by the weather staying just ahead of it.

Out of the high mountain valleys but still a long way to go. We rode down these ridges for hours finally dropping beneath the soggy cloudes.

The San Jose de Ocoa side of the park. The road, while better than mud, is rough with the rip-rap stone in it. It makes for rough riding. At one point it vibrated one of my water bottles out of it's tight holder. I'm actually surprised I didn't lose water bottles more often. It could be quite rough descending on those roads. Pavement returns in Sabana Larga, 6 km above San Jose de Ocoa.

Down we go.

...And go.

Park boundary.

Below the clouds at last, views like this open up. Imagine this ride on a clear day!

Muddy track but only every once in a while.

I discover the joys and food value of Malta de India.

Crossing the Ocoa River...and up the other side. We followed the river, leaping over ridges until we got back to it, crossing it just above San Jose de Ocoa, then again just below San Jose de Ocoa. Then the road follows the river all the way to Cruce de Ocoa, closely for some miles in the last stretch.

San Jose de Ocoa near the park. Behind me is the main bus terminal where, in the rain, we learned that nobody would put our bikes on a bus. We ate pica pollo the other side of the park (you can almost see it through the trees over the moto rider's head) and then, in the rain, reluctantly headed for Cruce de Ocoa some 30 kms away. We tried in three different places to get a bola to Cruce. Nobody was having any of it. No rides. Part way along we stopped for water and was told, Cruce de Ocoa? No problem. 5 km and all down hill. I noticed he smelled of whisky and was very friendly and decided to not really believe him. 13 up and down kms later, we really did find Cruce de Ocoa. So I propose a footnote on our T shirt, "5 km and all down hill."

At the big bus stop at Cruce de Ocoa...trying to talk bus drivers into somehow putting out bikes on or in their busses. Three hopefuls, one try but, in the end, no takers.

The wild ride in the rain. Sorry this photo is a little fuzzy. It was nearly dark, just a little light left, and it was raining. My cap and red raincoat hood can be seen in the lower right. I'm holding the camera out with one hand but not steadily enough. The bikes are loaded up in the pick-up bed atop something, camping gear? under a tarp. We were told we couldn't damage anything there. Good job, Justin, for getting us that ride. It was fast, crazy (but what traffic on a DR autopista isn't,) wet and cold and we got there. In other words, it was just right. It did the job. And pretty much we were too tired to care about the cold or much else. A kind of fatalism settled upon us. We joked about the many near death experiences going on all around us. WTF. If it isn't dangerous, it isn't DR. The ride kept us awake. It was stunning, really: the swirling water in the headlights, the closely passing vehicles, the swings out into the fast lane, whichever that was, and the glorious accelerations as we passed other vehicles, slamming through traffic jams in Bani, the astonishing warmth in the 27 de Febrero tunnel, followed by the renewed even colder cold when we surfaced again...what a ride. The driver knew what he was doing. And dropped us off exactly where we wanted him to. We walked, did not ride, the bikes from there to our hotel.

                The following afternoon found me riding back up to my apartment, a ride up steepish hills that were rather harder to climb than they had ever been before, even after my first ride to Manabao a month and a half earlier when I wasn't in very good shape.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The secret fart
                This will be a short entry. The fart, after all, is a secret. And you won’t be learning what that secret is, either…because I don’t know what it is. If I did, it wouldn’t be a secret. So this is the short record of a deduction.
                The diet here seems in conflict with the very culture that insists upon that diet. Beans. Rice, white rice, the bad stuff with all the goodness milled out of it, a mountain of it (and Dominicanos put away before I’ve gotten my fork and spoon out,) and beans abundantly ladled over the mountain. Arroz y habituelas, with a little meat tossed on top, usually chicken but also beef at times. And the culture is anti-smell. No “bad” smells allowed. A Dominican army would falter and fail if their supply of body deodorant sticks was interrupted. And absolutely no farting allowed, anytime, anywhere. This is so strict even Peace Corps doesn’t mention it by name. It is assumed that the emphasis put on that which smells and bathing multiple times a day (with cold water) will enable any new volunteer to draw the essential parallels, make the appropriate extrapolations. A fart even heard will dispossess the unfortunate farter of his or her culture. Men may fart and be socially quarantined. Women simply never fart. It’s never happened here, can never happen here and will not happen here; no need for discussion. Women are pure…a kind of revered subspecies, but pure. Any woman that farts is a man…and any man dressing as a woman is going to be found eaten by sharks. Message: don’t fart. Eat lots of beans and don’t fart. It’s no wonder the health issues Dominicans have.
                So, what I’m thinking is, physics win out, which is the usual case. People must fart. Everyone must fart just as I do after a meal of one mountain of white rice accompanied by a heaping portion of beans. So when does it happen? There have to be opportunities. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from farting. My gut distends with the held gas generated by the beans and rice I must consume to be a apprentice to this culture. Holding it in as I have to, through hours of meetings right after lunch, for example, without crying out in pain has to take practice. I remember one attack of gas I had in college that actually put me down in the common room I was in such pain. When the gas finally worked its way out, well, description aside, it was a tremendous relief. My experience informs me of what it must be like for millions of Dominicans every day. I have a new reverence for their abilities and perseverance. And, then, one must consider that eventually that gas has got to get out.
                I have yet to find a gas relief center in any town or city here. I haven’t been everywhere but with a need so great such centers, if needed, would be everywhere. Quite profitable, too, given circumstances. So there’s another way, a more “appropriate technology” so to speak and to put it in terms of my service work here. A fart heard would be as socially damaging as a fart smelt. So farts, a.) must happen and, b.) must be silent.
                I can just hear my friend scolding her 5 year old: “No, son, you can’t do that.” “But, Mom, I have to.” “You can’t do that, now go to your room and stay there until you figure out what to do.” “Aw, Mom! No fair!” “Go on, now. I mean it. To your room. Go.” And they figure it out. They have to.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

If I had a hammer

                Wherever did I get the idea that one should use the “right tool for the job?” This is so stuck in my mind I think it’s in my bones. My father. Must have been. From when I was tiny and would wander down to the basement to see what he was doing on a Saturday or Sunday morning. And later in shop class in high school when we made foot stools and note pad holders for our mothers out of soft, broad grained pine.
                Here at the school just about everyone has been bent on teaching me that any tool can be used in place of any other for almost any job. Why do we even look for a hammer to do a hammer’s job when there are so many rocks lying about our feet? Or a chunk of steel on the floor where it’s been cut from a length that went into making rejas. Just pick one up and bang away. A thigh bone were it available? Of course. And there’s that hot breath on my shoulder telling me that Neanderthal times are closer here than one might think. I don’t touch mirrors for fear I might find one with a liquid surface and lose a finger in it. I’ve learned you can’t trust anything around here. Not caring what the end product looks like opens the gates allowing a flood of possibilities. The crash and bash school of woodworking works just fine. And, true, I don’t know a thing.
                So, you can tell that I’ve been to the shop with my students. The shop is an amazing place. They do welding there as well as woodwork, often at the same time and in the same space. I’ve learned that if one does not care if ones hearing is damaged, one does not need hearing protection, saving as much as 5 dollars on the pair and heaven knows how much hassle keeping track of them. Same for eye protection. The table saw, an ancient affair where the blade is not raised or lowered but the table itself, hinged at the back, is lifted and blocked in the front to expose more or less of the blade. The fence, bent, is moved toward and away from the blade by loosening two clamps and sliding it. The set-up is such it’s almost impossible to get the fence parallel to the blade. The pinched wood flies across the shop. The smell of scorched wood hangs in the air. It’s a pleasant, sweet smell. I’ve come to like it. And the blue haze reminds me of our living room on Long Island when I was growing up, the smoke coming from my father’s pipe dividing the room in half horizontally: blue smoke from about 4 feet to the ceiling, clear air from the floor up to that nearly perfect plane. In the kitchen the only time that happened was when someone left the toaster on and went into the next room. In the kitchen that was a bad thing. In the Living room it was a normal thing…any Saturday or Sunday afternoon and every evening.
                The switch for the saw is located across the room. You have to leave the saw (running) and climb over stacks of, most recently, bags of Portland cement, to get to it. Should you slip and fall back into the running saw…? Well, that problem is easily and commonly managed: we just don’t think about it. How simple. How could I have missed these simple solutions all these years? I certainly have learned a lot about wood working here in the DR.
                A while ago some students and teachers came down from Paul Smiths College in upstate New York. The school set about building three tent platforms. We had some moldy wood that, remarkably, had not rotted away (though it was stained black and was slippery to handle leaving anything that touched it black) and some 4 X 4’s and went to work. The Paul Smiths teachers and I found ourselves just standing back while our students and some of the school staff slammed away at making the platforms. Per the usual way these things are done, It was crooked, un-flat, ugly and wobbly but finished in the time allotted. The students learned nothing about making it “right” whatever that means—sure I don’t know anymore—or making it “well.” I still have some idea of what that might mean and I’m holding on to it like a person newly cast into a wild sea—too far out for rescue—holds onto a life ring.
                I have made a small contribution, though we’ll see just where it goes. I think nobody quite knows what to do with it yet. I found—on the Makita website—their manual for their table saw. We actually have one in the shop. The motor’s burned up and nobody’s gone to the trouble to either replace it or try to repair it. I actually turned the saw on its side and nearly got in there with a screwdriver to remove the motor to have a look but the better part of me, perhaps a little bird perched on my shoulder, whispered that I should keep my mitts out of it and I set the saw back on its base leaving well enough alone. I don’t need the extra work. The manual has a prominent section on both shop and tool safety and the manual is written in three languages: English, French and Spanish. I pulled the safety charla out of the manual and interleave the English and Spanish. The school is bi-lingual so, this way, anyone reading either language will have the other both above and below the entry if interested…assuming anyone is actually interested in safety. It is at least a novel idea. My grand idea, here, is for the students to make placards (in both languages…it’s about time things appeared in English in the school so that students can actually become familiar with the language, but that a topic for another time) and post them in the shop here and there, hopefully near the appropriate tool.

This is the fellow, the jointer. It's a Jet, as we can see and might not be all that bad, but the knives are dull. That little pile of chips (dark brown) on the floor? They were beaten, not sliced, off the wood. I know. I made them. I have a (small) dream: to fix the shop. This machine has a stop switch...which has been broken since long before I got here. It's been wired around so that, now, the machine starts when you plug it in. Stop it? Why would you ever want to do that? Emergency? Never happens. The shop steward lost two fingers in this machine. I can only imagine. When I used it the vibration of the piece I was running over the cutter was so great it made my had burn and nearly took the wood out from under my hand. New knives cost $20 US. I'd have to buy the 4 mm hex wrench to install them, of course, b/c good luck finding anything in this mess (nobody else can, not the shop steward or anyone else who works here.) So, why don't I? B/c I'd be spending my own money, making the new knives a gift, and that's not the point. What I have to do is convince the higher-ups (one of whom I'm not talking to anymore) to spend the money to fix the machine...and many others in the shop. But, ah, they never needed those tools, anyway. Just look at what they can do without them. A hammer? Around here someplace. Saw it just last week. It was on the table somewhere over there. Could be someone took it down to recinto dos. Ask David.

                Another thought is to get a huge grant somehow and make the shop a professional shop. Right now we have 5 table saws, only the most dangerous of which works (see picture.) I figure it this way: the school is trying to find things to make they can sell to help support the shop. The school and the ministry of environment and natural resources is all about trees: tree identification, appreciation and forest management. I want to teach the students many things including giving them the experience of making something well and that is also beautiful. We’ll need sharp tools to do that and a safe environment in which to do it all. And I want to teach safety. The shop, currently, is a disaster just waiting to eat some student’s fingers or whole hand. I also would like to get the Portland cement, for example, and the welding out of the shop: safety, again. It’s a dream. My bet is it won’t happen. It just goes too much against the grain. And my work through Peace Corps is not to gift them things like a new shop but to help develop capacity. They have to want the new shop and be willing to work toward making it happen.
                I’ve witnessed horrifying (to me) practices around the table saw. Such as students encouraged to “help” the shop steward to saw long, and even shorter, pieces by standing at the out-feed side of the saw and help by pulling the wood through the saw. Wow. When I saw that, I didn’t know where to begin. At first I couldn’t think of anything to say. I kept thinking (my Peace Corps training coming to the fore,) “What would be the culturally appropriate thing to say?” I don’t think I have figured that out. I wore hearing protection, then shared it with the students and plugged my ears with my fingers when the saw was running. They began copying me and expressed a preference for using the hearing pro. That surprised me and—and here I disarm myself a bit—pleased me.
New APCD so I redefine my project
                This was a perfect opportunity to redefine my project. I’m writing this from the distance of two months’ perspective—it happened in early February and it’s now mid April—to see some things differently but think I can report such that you know what a piece of the puzzle this was. And it has not changed much in the intervening 9 weeks. Nine weeks is nothing, unless you’re here doing what I’m doing, in which case, it’s like a year into the past.
                I had done two things just a few weeks earlier: I’d given my students an “informational” math test—a test not for grades but one that simply lets me know what they know—and I had begun to teach them about window screens. Generally, we don’t have them here. There are some on several of the school buildings but none on the kitchen or cafeteria. I’d recommended screens as a possible “appropriate technology.” My first few months here when I was living with my host family I saw the need for them but many or most houses here have walls that are too permeable to make screens useful. It’s something I recognized seeing both the dog (and other) feces all around the my host family’s house and the numerous flies that swarmed into the kitchen and over the food on the table at meal times. Flies walk on the poo, then on the food and those eating the food get the poo. It’s a simple cycle. The school is of sealable concrete block buildings…unlike the wood slat affairs so many of the poorer people have.
                We were called to present our projects to our new APCDs. Our AT group was split into two 8 member groups, AT and Water. My presentation started with stating my project, the list of project partners (I’m on my third) and other reasons why I think my project has failed. It has failed as originally stated: for me to teach AT to a project partner who will teach it to the students. Some assumptions (more likely, promises) were made that I’d have one project partner for my entire project and that we’d have consistent classes. My project partner has been changed twice and we never know if my class will meet or not. So far, I’ve come ready to teach the class and, in the minutes before the class have been told, oh, the class has been taken to do [some other project] on/for the campus/school.
                I proposed that my project be redesigned to not provide a specific AT curriculum for the school but a tool kit from which an AT curriculum can be assembled per the needs of the particular class or year or ability of the class at the time. It also will be a kind of record of what I have learned in my 2 years about the realities of the class and school.
                The class had failed the informational test. They couldn’t do any of the problems. I turned the test into a teaching opportunity and lead them through the problems.
                About the screens, I had gone to one of the large ferreterias (hardware stores) in Santiago and gotten the parts prices and assembly method of the aluminum framed screens. As we started the unit on screens, I proposed a 3’ X 3’ screen and, presenting the component prices, asked what it would cost to make a screen that size. They couldn’t figure it out. What was worse, it turned out, they didn’t know the difference between perimeter and area. It seems all they could do was take any two given numbers and multiply them on their calculators and present that as their answer. Apparently this is what worked in the past. The brain was never engaged in this process. The students had no idea what the numbers they multiplied signified. They lack the ability to conceptualize. So I proposed to my new APCD that I refocus my class on the basic conceptualization and math skills the students would need if they were to meet the school mission as proposed in their mission statement. The students did not object to the new direction of the class. We’d study the basic applied math and could make things in the shop as those opportunities came up…or not, depending.
                The APCDs in the audience supported my presentation and suggestion whole-heartedly. It was a success. And so off we went into the sunset, except the sunset turned out to be a painting in front of a concrete wall. The wall was the school…and the fact that the students didn’t really want to do actual work such as think and learn. I now get the impression that the point of school is that it is a time when you go to be given a bunch of awards at various periodic ceremonies. The student is told they have accomplished some marvelous thing and they believe they have. It’s a sham. I think, however, that it is what the students have experienced and come to expect their whole lives…and their teachers have become used to this chain of events.
                My class is taken for a grade but has no tests or homework. Some in the class have actually tried to take over the class or to disrupt it, to sabotage the class by generally filling the space with noise. At one time, my second project partner spent the class yelling “silencio!” every so often, as needed. The class was chaos.
Host family house. Note slatted kitchen wall
The neighborhood. The house I stayed in is in the upper left.

Students working on a clay stove

Stove nearly finished

Trig problem students couldn't do. We have yet had the opportunity to go outside and actually do this measurement exercise. One thing I don't have is a 45 degree triangle. I'll have to make one in the shop. The students also couldn't tell me the significance of the 45 degree triangle so I've added a unit on triangles...and basic geometry.

And, so was added a unit on basic measurement. Turns out the students don't know how to use either the English or Metric measurement systems. We haven't had the chance to get into this in any depth, either. The screen, for example, is sold in inch widths by the meter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Security Call  
                (This is being posted on April 18th and was written in mid-November. I am just catching up. It's still current.) Call me a break-and-enter without breaking and entering kind of guy. Peace Corps okayed this apartment as secure The steel bars on all the windows and doors would convince anybody, right? Let’s look again. I’m in here and my stuff is laying all about in my room. I’ll be away for the week. Here’s what’s happened in the past and what I could do in an hour here…and, remember, I’ve never broken into a house nor had the impulse to do so. Folks here, the poorer ones…or anyone, what do I know…have incentive and, Peace Corps tells us and my experience as a traveler tells me, we are targets for theft.
                So, I left the keys on the bed one day of the apartment I just left and locked myself out of my room. Easy, right? Go find someone who has another set of keys like the owner of the apartment, but, no keys. I had the only ones. The windows are barred with steel bars (rejas pronounced “ray-hass”) but there are louvered glass windows. I walked around to the outside of the window and rotated the windows open from the outside and removed one of the panes of glass. It was easy to lift out of its holder.  I begged a fellow the other side of an Anchor fence to give me a wire I could put a hook on. He elaborated and gave me a stick with a wire attached. It took him maybe 5 minutes. I could see the keys on the bed. I reached through the window with the stick with the wire with a hook on it, hooked the keys and lifted them out through the window; done!
                In my previous house I had, perhaps only a week before, locked the keys in my room on moving day. I’d had two sets of keys in my pocket and in some moving-day confusion, checked my pocket as I always do to reassure myself my keys were there and locked the door. Wrong keys. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I dismantled the bolt and lock system on the door with my Leatherman tool (using the screwdrivers and the pliers) and had the door open in just under twenty minutes. My doña was watching on. She timed me. When I first discovered my mistake I thought we’d have to destroy the door. Then I thought about it a minute, took a more careful look at the way the blot plate had been fastened to the door and thought I’d have a try. Twenty minutes. Anybody could have done it. All they needed was a reason. Usually a laptop computer in the room or a camera or the rumor of some cash is enough and all that is a given if it’s the room of a gringo here.
                This house. I’ve been here just 24 hours. I have not gotten over the feeling that I have made a really dumb move coming here because it’s removed from my work and the friends I’ve made here and the last thing I want to do is set myself up to be even more socially isolated than I am.
                Flash forward to today and I’ll tell you that having the apartment a distance from the school made me buy a bicycle and that has been the key to a lot of good that has happened for me here. The hilly ride up to the apartment—which I am now doing several times each week from the town a hillier dozen km away, not just from the school which is much closer—has made me much stronger and healthier than I would have been and enabled a mountain bike ride, because I had the essential mountain bike and was in shape because of the distance and the hills, over some of the wildest and most beautiful country in the DR. So, get the inconvenient apartment. Buy the bike. Do it.
                The windows—slide-by affairs common here that lock from the inside (if you can call it “lock”…stay tuned)—were open. I went to close them because I don’t have a way yet to put up a mosquito net over the bed and mozzies were coming in. There is a little latch on each window that hooks into its mate on the window where it meets the window frame. These happen to be broken on every window in my apartment. The windows can be slid open from the outside. They cannot be locked. Even if they could be, the fact that they are broken and that I can’t find evidence of forcing from the outside—no marks or dents in the aluminum window frames—tells me that they were easy to break. I do wonder about the first time this happened. I am not all that high off the ground and a short ladder could be put up against the wall or even something like a plastic chair or a bicycle or moto. That side of the house is away from the road and in the trees that so prettily make the yard. They’d hide anything anyone was doing at my windows. How about the fiddle in its case? The case won’t fit through the bars but…open, with the contents already removed it fits through nicely. There goes the fiddle. And all the clothes I have not put in the closet. But, hey, the closet can be opened with a stick from the windows and everything I have in there hooked out. Everything, pretty much, but my large suitcase, can be made to fit between the bars and can be hooked out with a stick with a wire hook on it like the one the fellow so kindly made for me so I could remove the keys from the bed of the guy who had just moved in there…. Oh, yeah, that was me, but it could have been anybody.
                So I am leaving tomorrow for the week and, really, most of my stuff is available to some smart—or maybe they don’t have to be so smart…it wasn’t hard for me to figure this out—fellows with a ladder, and a stick with a wire hook on it and maybe an hour and a half of invested time. We have the disarming appearance of security without the fact of security in this house.
                Okay…so it’s not that simple. I hear my fellow volunteers—some of them, with the rest just staying out if it and concentrating on the next time they get to go to a movie, dinner and then to a bar in Santiago—saying, why are you making your time in the DR so hard? Their advice? Relax, go with the flow, don’t worry about it. Cheeze, man, chill…you worry too much. And, after all, this isn’t inner city New York. But, hey, wait a minute; doesn’t 10% of the world’s Dominican population, a million people, live in and around New York City? And they’re smart people. Everybody is smart people…they’re people.
Fooling around
                Well, we were. She put her nose right on mine and laughed. She has a remarkably soft nose. I have your eye, she said. She had just one. I know how that happens that close. And silently the part of me taking notes, aligning data, remarked that her eyes were the same distance apart as mine. She had one perfect, dark—faded, soft, the color of the night sky--eye. And from that we, the note-taker and I, remarked that she was seeing what I was seeing, eye-size-wise. Her hair fell forward and covered her face and mine and we were in a little enclosure a bit darker for her hair (fuzzy blonde.) I have your eye, she said. She did, and she does. She pushed her nose into mine pretty hard flattening them both, and half laughed, half giggled. I know nothing of this, really, but I’d bet, now, remembering our fooling around and what I’d heard that her voice is going to be dark and silky. In a flash I see her at twenty-five. And will the image away as possibly inappropriate. Besides, I’ll be eighty-seven and she’ll have come on a side trip from the conference she’s attending as a part of her doctoral work. It’ll happen to be nearby. I don’t know where I’ll be living then, but we’ll have stayed in touch, her parents and me, and, really it’s not all that far off. She’ll have lost none of her gaiety, none of her natural buoyancy the bud of which I am witnessing now and taking in like a thirsty desert plant. She'll visit and I'll hear her honey toned voice, mellowed to well-aged whisky but I want to avoid images of alcohol and hope she stays away from the stuff and achieves what she will achieve with other means and shows us how it’s done that way, a revelation to most, told-you-so to others, folks like me, those burned by alcohol’s cold flame. “Be the change.” I hope she will. She already is.

                Fooling around. I had been lying back in the chair into which I had collapsed following a two hour hill race on mountain bikes traversing this valley with her father. I won but he’ll win the next one, I can see that by the way he joked about it—and he’ll fix his bike, replace the pedals and the derailleurs, true the back wheel. She climbed onto my lap like I sometimes climbed into the crotch of a tree on a bad climbing day when I was 6, awkwardly, leg high, head low, arms grabbing at air, or anything, a giggling desperation confident that , anyway, I’d not let her fall to the floor. She’d rode the pony, this being, I think, my first time—plunked herself there—ooooo—and I caught myself wondering what might be in that diaper she was wearing and, if so, would it squirt onto my knee. That didn’t happen and off we went at a slow trot: bump, bump, bump, bump. Fortunately she got another idea before my leg gave out and her pony quit to nibble grass beside the road. She stood on my jelly thighs. It makes me laugh as I write this and see her again standing before me arms spanning the known world. She stood up, balanced in a wobbly way, held her arms wide, almost fell over backwards, her face alight, said, whoa, and giggled a canyon-wren-like descending series of soap-bubble sounds at her recovered balance. That was close, she laughed. My arms remained at my sides but ready. She bent over, grabbed the fold of my shorts in front there fortunately empty of delicate objects, pulled herself forward, stood on my crotch stepped onto my stomach and fell into my face and onto my wet T-shirt still giggling. I’ve got your eye, she said.
                I flashed that you can have this experience anywhere in the world, not just in the DR as a PCV; what had taken me so long? How is it that I’d never been this close to a two year old? In the States you can’t get this close to other people’s children any more. And I’ve never had any of my own. Maybe that’s why. What would Peace Corps think of “what we were doing?” (Say that in a basso falso voice while making air quotes.) I covered all the bases, or my mind did, on its own, being responsible, I suppose, and I had not covered this ground before. I was fooling around with a girl under eighteen. Well, okay. True. But it’s different. Her mother was in the next room making lunch for us. What would she say if she saw us? I know exactly what she’d say: Now, Emma, don’t climb on Paul, he’s tired.