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Dominican Funerals

8 Sep

Last night, I woke up to someone tapping on my bedroom window. I slowly peeled open my still heavy eyelids to hear my early morning visitor tell me that Rafael’s mom had just passed away.

I climbed out of bed, threw on the first clothes that I could find and walked across the street. Rafael, the closest thing to a Dominican father that I think anyone could find, was standing in the street, arms open for a hug and as tears began to stream down his face, said, “Gray, my mother is gone”.

It was just after 4am but people from around the community had already begun to trickle in. We all sat around the house, drinking ginger tea trying to warm ourselves up from a cold morning, only found in the mountains on this island, and waited for the priest to arrive.

Just past 6am, the sun began to rise and one of my favorite doñas and I set out to make flower arrangements to decorate the house. It is dry this time of year and flowers are harder to come by but as we passed farmers waking up to go to the fields, they encouraged us to go to their houses to pluck the fresh blooms.

As we arrived back to the house, flower arrangements in hand, we quickly fell into spots in the kitchen to begin cooking breakfast and lunch for upwards of a hundred people who would inevitably come to show their support. It took me awhile to be allowed on cooking duty and although I’m still only allowed at the seasoning station—cutting garlic, onions, cilantro and celery—it feels nice to have a spot amongst my doñas.

I can’t tell you how many velorios (funerals) I have been to during my two years in this country but to give you an idea, I’ve been to three this week alone. I used to wonder whether more people die in this country but realize now that it comes from living in a small town where everyone knows each other and from a Dominican saying that roughly translates to, “today for you, tomorrow for me.”

There is something beautiful about funerals in the Dominican Republic. A death here means a community event, supporting the family for nine days after they die. Once someone dies, they are placed in a casket and set in the middle of the sala (den) with candles, plastic chairs and family members audibly weeping around them. People with such limited resources come together to support their neighbors and make sure that the family is prepared to receive 100 plus visitors. Marianela is always the person who gets the flowers, Maritza is in charge of the cooking, Elcida keeps the coffee flowing, Pimpo buys the bags of ice (bodies are not embalmed here so bags of ice have to be placed below the casket to keep it from smelling before it is buried), my youth are the pall bearers and Rafael takes all of the bodies to the cemetery.

It took me awhile to feel useful at velorios and for my town to recognize that they didn’t need to host me while I was there to comfort them. Although I still dread going to every funeral that I attend, I’ve learned the importance of cumplir-ing (the idea that everyone in the town must show up to support) and just being there for my community.



Double Life

7 May

I just got back from an amazing vacation in North Carolina where I spent ten days eating delicious food, drinking amazing craft beer and wine, browsing the internet at my finger tips and most importantly celebrating my cousin Allie and Cliff’s wedding.

Rehearsal dinner at a vineyard

Rehearsal dinner at a vineyard

Cliff and Allie

Cliff and Allie

Photo booth at reception

Photo booth at reception

Volunteers always joke about how hard it is going to be to adjust back into American culture—how we are going to be the people that everyone stares at on public transportation as we greet fellow commuters with salutations or scrunch our noses instead of asking for clarification or even worse, hissing for a waiter’s attention. While, I admittedly, have lost some of my social graces, it is actually a lot easier to slip back into life in the United States than one would think. I guess at the end of the day, I have lived there for the majority of my 27 years.

The only other time that I have been back to the US during my service was last June when I went for a whirlwind trip for my grandfather’s funeral. The focus wasn’t on me or my Peace Corps experience and most definitely not on next steps. This trip was different. I only have five months left in country, everyone was curious about what is up next. I dodged some questions, embraced others in making post-Peace Corps plans and even daydreamed about my new apartment in Spanish Harlem.

Ten days came and went too quickly and I left America feeling weird—sad that I won’t be able to spend any more time with my sister and her kiwi boyfriend during their three month holiday but also emotional arriving back to the island to finish up my last 150 days of service.

All of these feelings faded away as soon as a hopped in the taxi and starting speaking Spanish to the driver with bachata music playing in the background. I wasn’t even fazed when I learned that I wasn’t going to be able to return home that day. There was a strike in my town and the road from the pueblo to La Lima was completely impassable with burning tires and blockades of palm trees.



As I waited at a bus stop the next day to go home, I ran into a Haitian man, Miguelito, who I met a few months back while building a stove at a house where he works. He and I quickly fell into conversation catching up on life and both boarded the bus home. They charged him double fare and when he questioned it, the only response from the driver was that he is Haitian and if he wants to stay on the bus, he pays double. I sat in silence. Debating whether to speak up. I convinced myself that it was not my battle to fight but then felt disgusted at my inaction. Did ten days in the south turn me into someone who bites my tongue and doesn’t stand up for what I believe in?

I finally arrived in my town unsure of how I felt to be back there. I walked to my house, opened the door, looking around for Effie, my dog, even though I know I left her back in NC at my parent’s house. I sat down on my couch hoping for a few minutes to unwind. This turned into only seconds as my door swung open to all of my neighbors greeting me with hugs, rice and beans and questions about my family and trip. I immediately fell back in the grove of things in the campo—watering my garden, doing yoga and eating dinner up at Elcida and Rafael’s. As much as I loved my trip home, I realized that this life I’ve created here, fits too.

Happy adoption anniversary, Effie!

Happy adoption anniversary, Effie!


All About Dominican Food

3 Mar

It is rare when I check my email to find anything other than spam, listserves or updates from Peace Corps. Well, the other day when my internet was working particularly well, I opened up gmail to find an introductory email between Bronwen and Grace, a fellow PCV serving in Thailand. Grace writes an awesome blog about food in the Peace Corps that follows volunteers serving all over the world and their perspectives on food. Here’s the interview below!

Name: Grayson Caldwell

Site: Dominican Republic (small mountain town of 50 homes)

Service Dates: August 2013-October 2015

Describe Dominican cuisine in one sentence. A mountain of rice with a side of beans.

You live in a community where agriculture is the primary livelihood. What kind of crops is your region known for?

Yuca (cassava) is the only crop that is grown in my town. It is a starchy root  vegetable that is religiously served at both breakfast and dinner with either fried salami, fried eggs or fried cheese on top. You can also make casabe out of yuca which is like a crunchier pita bread. There is a casabe factory down the street from my house which was built as a USAID project and employees about 15 people.

Since moving to the Dominican Republic, you’ve started gardening. What inspired you to start growing your own food? (What kind of veggies do you grow? Have you been successful in encouraging others to garden?)

I live in a food desert. On an average day, your options at the local colmado(bodega) are an assortment of viveres (yuca, potatoes and green bananas/plaintains), salami, cheese, eggs and beans. I started a community garden project with a group of women in my health group. To be completely honest, this was started a bit selfishly because I couldn’t imagine spending two years without access to veggies. So we now have 14 different gardens in my town growing lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, beets and more. Some of the women have even started selling the vegetables from their gardens at the local colmado.


Carmen y Laura

You are passionate about cooking and have shared a number of recipes on your blog. What is your favorite thing to cook in the kitchen these days?

 Homemade Falafel


-1 can chickpeas

-4 eggs

-1/2 tsp salt

-1/3 cup chopped cilantro

-1 onion, chopped

-1/2 oats

-1 tbsp oil

Combine chickpeas, eggs and salt in a blender (or you can smash it all up by hand) until it looks like a thick hummus mixture. Stir in cilantro, onion and oats. Heat oil and pan-fry 1 ½ inch patties for 5-6 minutes on each side.

There is a farmer in my town who makes homemade yogurt which I’ve been mixing with a dollop of green curry paste as a dipping sauce. So good!

On your “PCV Packing List” for the DR, you recommended that future PCVs bring basic cooking staples like spices, coconut oil, and hot sauce. What American ingredient would you be most excited to find in your town?

Almond butter. Paleo pancakes (almond butter, an egg and a banana), an afternoon snack with an apple and almond butter or even just adding a spoonful to smoothies. I love the stuff. Unfortunately, you can only find it at fancy grocery stores in the capital and it is way out of any PCV’s budget. Instead it always at the top of any wish list for packages from America 🙂

What aspect of Dominican food culture would you like to bring back with you to the States?

Definitely la bandera–rice, beans, meat and if you’re lucky, a salad–is served at lunch at any Dominican house across the country. I really like that families all gather around the lunch table everyday at noon and that lunch is the biggest meal of the day. It is my goal at the end of my service to master Dominican rice and beans. Until then, I just keep popping my head into my favorite doña‘s (older lady) kitchen at lunchtime.


12 Feb

I haven’t been blogging much recently, as I’m sure you all have noticed. I am in the last nine months of my service and in kind of a weird place. I’m anxious about next steps—where am I going to move? What are my next career steps? When should I apply for graduate school? Etc.

Luckily I was able to put a few of these worries aside on an amazing 10-day vacation that I just spent with my mom, stepdad and my best friend, Bronwen. The vacation rocked. Our time was filled building stoves, surprise asopaos (special occasion rice dish), exploring deserted beaches, whale watching and eating ass loads of food.

Lunch on the beach in Las Terrenas

Lunch on the beach in Las Terrenas

Waterfall in El Limon

Waterfall in El Limon

Whale Watching in Samana

Whale Watching in Samana

Last night dinner at El Cabito

Last night dinner at El Cabito

It was also a great opportunity to reflect on the past 18 months. My mom and Scooter were filled with questions about the culture, my community and next steps. In fact, the last night Scooter asked me questions that really made me stop and think…

What do you like most about the DR? The culture. I love that you greet everyone when you get on public transportation and that everyone has an open door policy. I love how loud everyone is and that my neighbor screams my name from her front porch when lunch is ready. I love going to the colmado (mini-market) with my favorite doña (older ladies) friends and dancing merengue (typical Dominican dance) over a shared jumbo (big beer).

What about the least? The disorganization. Or what I now call organized chaos. Lines do not exist. Anywhere. You go into a colmado to buy food and it doesn’t matter who was there first, everyone just shouts their orders at the owner. There can be as many as three cars and 5 motos all sharing one lane on the highway. Which yes, is as terrifying as you would think.

What impresses you the most? The landscape. I never thought I would live on a tropical island but this country has really set the bar high for island living. I am constantly amazed at the scenery here. Windy mountain roads surrounded by pine trees to the most breathtaking white sand beaches lined with swaying palm trees. All of which is best seen by moto or a bola in the back of a pick up truck.

And disappoints you the most? Cultural norms. I love the culture here but it also makes me want to scream. I hate that I live in a house that a 50-year old built my (at the time) 14-year-old neighbor. It breaks my heart to see parents yell and hit their children and that kids are raised to think that it’s ok to kick animals. Or that my best friend in site (not Bronwen) is having sex with three people and one is married and the other is a minor and that I’m the person that she confides in. The worst part is that I’ve become desensitized to all of this and think that it is just normal now. 

It was really great to reflect with my parents over the past 18 months and realize that although some days I complain about being here and would love nothing more than constant electricity and hot showers in a swanky hotel, I am looking forward to the next nine months. Last pregnancy of service; let’s do this thang.

Cook Stoves Project

11 Nov

I am currently in the thick of an improved cook stove project in my town. My mason and I just completed the first five of a 35-stove project that we are hoping to finish by March and, let me just say… construction projects are hard. It is a waiting game to receive funding to start the project; it is tough to buy all of the construction supplies when you live in an isolated town an hour away from the nearest ferreteria (hardware store) and four hours away from the factory where you have to buy the ceramic stove parts; and it is even more difficult to ask poor families to financially back part of the project.

Luis, Hector and I on our 4-hour journey.

Luis, Hector and I on our 4-hour journey.

So, what is the purpose of this project? The main goal of the improved cook stove project is to reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses for both women and children—the leading cause of death in developing countries—by removing smoke from cooking areas. An added benefit is that the stoves are also more efficient. They use less firewood than the traditional cooking methods (win for the environment!) and they also significantly cut down on the amount of time that a woman spends in the kitchen.

Traditional Cooking Method

Traditional Cooking Stove.

A quick breakdown of the stoves…

  • $250: the cost of each stove
  • 8: the number of hours it takes to build each stove
  • 24: the number of ceramic parts used to build each stove
  • 9: feet of chicken wire to build each stove
  • 3: bags of cement used to build each stove
  • 20: cement blocks to build each stove
  • $2,995: the amount of my ECPA (Energy and Climate Partnerships of America) grant

This project has been really interesting so far. I am a female boss of a construction project in an extremely machismo (male-dominated) society. During the first few weeks of our project, it was a constant battle with my mason, Luis, to let me help with the manual labor—he didn’t think women should mix cement or lay concrete blocks, he thought that I would break my back if I lifted anything remotely heavy and would tell me to take a break the moment he saw a bead of sweat on my forehead.

My mason, Luis.

My mason, Luis and our helper, Effie.

As difficult as parts of this project are, I really believe in it and take the small wins with huge strides. Luis and I finally made a breakthrough the other day when, in the middle of our work, he stated that this is the first project that he has ever worked on with a woman and how great of a team we make. I have also seen first hand the difference that it is making in the lives of my friends and family here. The women take such pride in their new stoves and are ecstatic how much quicker they can cook their rice and beans and that they still taste the same as they did using the traditional cooking method. And I will never forget the first stove that we finished, when the family gathered outside with amazement in their eyes as they watched the smoke leave the chimney.

Marynella and her daughter, Lucy.

Marynella and her daughter, Lucy.

Roberto watching the smoke leave the chimney.

Roberto watching the smoke leave the chimney.



Dominican Field Trip

12 Sep

I recently went on my first Dominican field trip sponsored by Naturaleza, a government program in charge of agriculture and farming initiatives. A couple of times a year, Naturaleza funds activities as a reward for its participants. Six months ago, when Manuel, the guy who runs the program, asked me to go on a trip with them, I said no. I didn’t participate in any of the projects and frankly, I couldn’t see the fun in spending the day with a group of 50+-year-old farmers. But when Manuel asked me this time around, I jumped at the opportunity. A mid-week beach day with my neighbors/family/friends seemed like a treat.

We woke up early to wait for the guagua (bus) that was supposed to pick us up at 6am sharp. Two hours later, we hopped on board and made the rounds to pick up people in surrounding communities. Around 10am we arrived at the Naturaleza office where we had butter and white bread sandwiches to tide us over before lunch at the beach. Around 11:30pm, we were close enough to smell the salt water, only 7km away, when all of a sudden smoke starting billowing out from underneath our guagua. Luckily, I had great company to help pass the time as it took nearly two hours to get the bus back up and running again.

Burning Guagua

Jenny & Maritsa

We finally arrived to the beach at 1:30pm where we spent the majority of the day in the shallow waters of the ocean. Filled our bellies to the brim with rice, beans and fried fish and capped off the afternoon standing in a group singing songs before boarding the bus to head back to Santiago Rodríguez.

Living in a mountain town with limited transportation and even more limited resources, this was many people’s first trip to the beach. This is not the case for me. I grew up going to the beach every summer and the bulk of my Thanksgiving breaks traveling to tropical islands with my family. In fact, I was at the same beach several months ago with volunteer friends staying at a nice hostel and checking out private islands by boat.

A few people in my town knew that I had been to that beach before so naturally asked what I did during my trip. I obviously can’t tell my community that I spent more than two days pay on a boat ride but I also hate lying to them. So.. where do you draw the line on disclosing information to your community? Is it best to follow in some Peace Corps volunteers’ footsteps and pretend that I only ever leave my site to go to a conference? Or is it possible to maintain my current relationships with people in my town knowing how different our financial resources actually are?

As for now, I have landed somewhere in the middle of this argument—lying by omission. Maybe my entire Peace Corps service will be filled with white lies and leading a double life but hopefully will be filled with more beach days with my community. Next time, I’ll remember to wear my camouflage one-piece 🙂

All my single ladies


Dominican Discrimination

8 Sep

Twice a year, Peace Corps volunteers get together for a regional meeting called mini-VAC, Volunteer Advisory Committee. Mini-VAC is volunteers’ opportunity to air our grievances and to try and push policy change within Peace Corps from the bottom up. This past mini-VAC meeting was in Monte Cristi, a pueblo (town) in the northwest part of the country right along the Haitian border.

As the crow flies, I am really close to Monte Cristi but of course the roads in the Dominican Republic are impossible to navigate and public transportation is unreliable and slow. What should have been an hour and a half trip took me about four hours.

En route to Monte Cristi, I was stopped at four different military checkpoints. The military men hopped on board our guagua (bus) looking for illegal Haitians. For an outsider, Haitians and Dominicans probably look fairly similar given that both races have African descendants. However, Dominicans also have Spanish ancestors therefore, are a little lighter skinned. These military checkpoints are very targeted. I was the only white person on board and didn’t even get a second glance from the military men who were demanding to see the passports of the people on board with the darkest skin. If Haitians are caught without papers in the Dominican Republic, they are thrown onto a bus and driven back to the Haitian border.

I recognize that it is illegal to live in the Dominican Republic without proper documentation but these military checkpoints are just one example of the discrimination that Haitians face in the Dominican Republic. More extremely, the government just passed a law to strip citizenship away from all Haitian descendants even if they were born in the Dominican Republic. Haitians flock to the DR looking for better opportunities but yet are paid 150 pesos for the same work that a Dominican earns 800. They run and hide from the weekly immigration bus that passes to avoid being shipped back across the border. Haitians also have no access to education in the DR because they do not have cedulas (identification cards) because they are unable to obtain citizenship.

I live in a town about an hour away from the Haitian border that has a fairly large Haitian population. In my town, I always make an effort to speak to everyone that I pass, including the Haitians. I also correct anyone who says they speak “Haitian” instead of Creole but shamefully; I haven’t done anything in my town to include Haitians in my groups or project. In fact, I am more than a year into my service and I still don’t know where the Haitians live in my town. As I was on the bus, I started to wonder if I am perpetuating some of the stigmas that Haitians face?

Part of me has been excusing my lack of interaction because I do not speak Creole. That is until my best friend in Peace Corps, Bronwen, so wisely told me that if I wait until I’m fluent in Creole to start working with the Haitian community, it would never happen. I know I can’t change my relationship with the Haitians in my town over night but I am going to try and make a more concerted effort to form relationships with them. Bronwen is absolutely right but I think that at least knowing how to introduce myself in Creole may be a good first step—so, first things first, I am signing up for the Creole training that Peace Corps offers in the fall.






Saved by the Bell

22 Aug

This week I’ve been surprised to see so many children wandering around town as the school year in the Dominican Republic was supposed to be back in full swing starting Monday. One student told me that only 21 of the 68 students in her class have shown up so far this year.

I took it upon myself to do a little investigating to figure out why so many children have yet to start classes and here are some of the best excuses I’ve heard so far:

  • No one goes to classes the first week.
  • The school bus (truck) left me—in other words, I was 15 minutes late to the bus stop and missed it.
  • My uniform is dirty.
  • I don’t have clean white socks.

While these excuses may be humorous, I can’t blame lack of attendance solely on the students. This is just one example to substantiate the disorganized educational system in the Dominican Republic. One where teachers lack proper training which in turn leads to students lacking motivation to invest in their own education. The DR school system is solely based on rote learning without any opportunity for critical thinking. The country is currently up in arms with a push towards a full school day instead of the current three-hour block sessions. If there is no way to learn critical thinking skills, how do you convince students of not only attending school but the added benefit of attending a full day?

Perhaps La Lima needs to follow in Santiago’s footsteps with trucks announcing that school is back in session. Or perhaps the DR government shouldn’t have decided to renovate the school starting a week ago? The students in grades K-8 are currently sharing space in the open-air discoteca (da club), which they have partitioned off in four sections for eight grades. Is this really conducive to learning? I think not. When will construction be finished? Another great question that no one seems to have the answer to. In the meantime, students will continue to bring their own water, toilet paper and supplies to class until they are allowed to go back to their actual classrooms.

Hopefully there will be a spike in attendance next week, si Dios quiere (if God wills it).



One Year Later

18 Aug

Last night, I woke up to the sound of water. It took me a few seconds to register where it was coming from and when I finally emerged from underneath my mosquito net and put my feet on the floor, they were soaked. I knew I had a big problem…

Without even giving my eyes time to adjust to the pure darkness that only comes living without constant electricity, I walked into the bathroom to find water spraying out by the gallon from the closed faucet in the shower. I decidedly put on my headlamp and headed outside to see if I could find the main water line to shut off the source.

This was probably the only time in my life that I didn’t scream for help from my neighbors or pick up the phone to call my dad—the repairman. I didn’t sign up for Peace Corps as a route to self-discovery but as I spent the next hour mopping up the pool of water, I thought to myself maybe I have changed a lot over the past year.

Without really realizing it, I’ve become more resourceful and patient. I not only can fix water leaks but I can also survive days without access to water, electricity, internet or cell phone service. I no longer get frustrated when my favorite Escojo youth choose to go to the river for an afternoon instead of to our meetings but instead get excited that 17 out of 20 youth just graduated from a six-month sex-ed course.

Escojo Graduation

I’ve learned to live with less. My salary here is significantly less per month than I used to pay monthly for rent. I’ve had to give up Pure Barre classes and shopping sprees, access to farmer’s markets and yummy organic food. I’m not saying that I don’t daydream about craft beer and Bloomingdales and that I won’t re-adopt a lot of these things on arrival back to America. But now, all of these things seem less significant after your neighbor just spent their last dollar to give you a cup of coffee because you came over to visit.

I’ve finally grown to appreciate the enormous amount of free time that I have in my life. Only in Peace Corps can the hours in a day drag by so slowly but the weeks and months fly by. At the beginning of my service, I was antsy and restless and felt like I should be out in my community doing something but instead, a year in, I cherish the time that I have to read in my hammock, knit, teach Effie tricks, practice yoga and take naps during the day.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

I’ve become a gardener. And I’m not just talking about pots on my porch filled with herbs. I have onions, beets, spinach, kale, eggplant, tomatoes, okra, watermelon and peppers all growing in my backyard. I spend my mornings drinking coffee intrigued by my kale plants that have grown an inch over night. I fight with the weeds constantly trying to take over my beds and with the turkeys that will never learn that they are unwelcome guests in my garden. I love to sit and talk for hours with my neighbors about how to keep tarantulas from building their homes near my basil, best ways to propagate rosemary and what new fruits each season will bring.


I’m fluent in another language. While I still struggle sometimes to fully express what I want to say in Spanish, I think it’s pretty awesome that I can communicate well enough to have a Dominican family that has adopted me like their own daughter. I not only have people that love me in La Lima but I also have new best friends in Peace Corps.

As I inch closer to the one-year mark of my service, this reflection is not to say that my time here has been easy. In fact, this has probably been the most trying year of my life both personally and professionally but I’m ready—I think—for what the next 15 months of my service will bring. I hope to accomplish more than I have over the past year but I realize now, that I am also ok without accomplishing as much as I originally set out. After all, there are still more beaches to explore, mountains to climb and Dominican tigueres to fall in love with…

…but for now, I’ll just take advantage of my all-inclusive pass to La Lima Country Club.




Meet Yessenia

7 Aug

High school in the Dominican Republic starts again in 11 days and I just found out that my host sister, Yessenia, will not be going back this year after she failed her third attempt at her sophomore year.


Yessenia is pretty reserved, super petite—she is only 4’10” and maybe weighs 90 pounds—and has the most infectious smile. She also is the mother of the cutest little boy, Yerdy.


I recently went and celebrated Yerdy’s second birthday and of course photographed every moment. The day was filled with lots of little people, cake, games and even some dembow dancing.

Yessenia & Yerdy

Little People

Yessenia is only 20 years old and is one of many young single mothers in this country. Teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic is a huge problem. We’re talking 23% of Dominican girls will be pregnant before they reach the age of 19.

Yessenia is lucky enough to have a very supportive family to make up for Yerdy’s very absent father. Yessenia’s mother, Virginia,helps out financially and watches Yerdy a lot, primarily so that Yessenia could continue studying. I think it is safe to bet that many girls do not have this luxury.

But now that Yessenia is dropping out of high school, what will her and Yerdy’s future look like? Is she destined to spend her days cooking and cleaning like the majority of the women in my campo? Stay tuned to here about Escojo Mi Vida and my attempt to make a dent in this problem in my campo.