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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.



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.

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. 

Packing Take Two

31 Jul

A new group of health volunteers arrives in just two weeks which means that I have been in the Dominican Republic for almost a year. What?

One of the newbies recently reached out to me asking for packing advice, which is completely warranted. In our Peace Corps orientation packet, we receive very vague packing instructions that mostly encourage us to dress in conservative business-casual clothes. So, here is what I think about my packing list from a year ago…

Things I’m glad I brought in country:

  • Hard drive—trust me. You will want all of the movies and TV shows your hard drive will hold!
  • Food staples—spices, coconut oil, hot sauce and almond butter
  • Nice knives
  • Set of double sheets
  • Headlamp
  • Hammock
  • Lots of pictures to hang on my walls
  • Map of the world and the United States
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Canvas reusable bags
  • Also, I’m really glad that I packed all of my stuff in Tupperware and dry bags—great for organizing!

Things I’m glad I’ve accumulated since being in country:

  • Ipad—much easier to travel with than my computer and wifi is (sometimes) easily available
  • Bag for weekend trips that holds a lot but won’t hit everyone on a guagua
  • New portable speakers—my awesome solar powered speaker broke a few months in L
  • Yoga mat
  • Knitting essentials
  • Seeds!
  • GRE study materials
  • French press

Things I could have done without:

  • Sleeping bag/sleeping pad—I only used my sleeping bag for about two months during the winter 

And finally, dos/don’ts for clothes…

  • Do pack cute clothes—the tighter, the brighter, the better.
  • Don’t pack a ton of business casual clothes—jeans = fancy.
  • Do pack a lot of sandals.
  • Don’t pack anything too revealing—Dominican women show it all off but (unfortunately) we have our reputations to uphold.
  • Do pack your favorite bathing suits—you are never more than a couple of hours from a beach!
  • Don’t pack anything you want to bring home after two years—inevitably, all of your clothes will be stained and have holes from barbed wire.

Dominican Coffee 101

11 Jul

The DR is famous for its coffee. Or maybe just famous for the sheer amount of coffee that they drink here. I probably drink around 4 or 5 cups of coffee a day. I wake up to a fresh cup from my favorite neighbor every morning around 7:30, usually receive several cups from neighbors around town during the day and cap off my afternoon with another cup from my favorite doña around 5.

One of the best parts about living in the mountains (despite it being a million degrees cooler) is that we also grow coffee. During certain times of the year, everyone’s front yard is filled with coffee beans drying, which are later roasted (with sugar) on a wood stove.

Full disclosure: we actually don’t drink coffee here but espresso made using a greca.

  • Step 1: Fill the bottom part of the greca up with water.
  • Step 2: Fill the filter with ground coffee. I like to sprinkle a little cinnamon on top!

Coffee Grounds

  • Step 3: Screw the lid on and place greca on top of the stove. Boil until you hear coffee rise to the top chamber.


  • Step 4: Repeat as often as necessary! If you are Dominican, you would also add at least two tablespoons of sugar per cup of coffee and serve it in a little tasita to all of your neighbors!

Hot Showers and Draft Beers

30 Jun

I recently went back to the United States for the first time in 10 months. Even though I did miss my friends and family back home, oddly enough, I wasn’t aching to go back.

Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away and being one of his only three grandchildren, I quickly booked a flight back.  As the plane descended into JFK and the seemingly identical two-story houses nestled next to each other inched closer, I felt really overwhelmed. In the grand scheme of things, 10 months isn’t that long but it is twice as long as I’d ever been out of the country before.

After a many hour delay at JFK, the airport turned out to be the perfect readjustment period that I needed to make all of my social blunders without anyone knowing my name like… A 60-year-old man helping me figure out the super high tech passport scanner; speaking Spanish to my waiter during my first American meal and then raving to said waiter about the impeccable airport sushi and draft beer; and of course just staring at everything in awe about how fancy America is.

My 10-day trip was a whirlwind—a few days in Newton celebrating the life of my grandfather, a couple of days on the North Carolina beaches with my mom and stepdad, a night visiting my grandmother and finally a few days in my hometown, Charlotte, celebrating my oldest sister’s birthday.

Boat trip in Ocean Isle.

Boat trip with my mom in Ocean Isle.


The family at summer pops concert.

The family at a summer pops concert.

It’s funny how you can come up with all of these things in your mind that you miss about the motherland—mostly food and modern amenities— and I’m not going to lie, these were definitely a nice treat. I took advantage of many hot showers, drank all the draft beer and ate as many sandwiches as my heart desired (not entirely true) and awkwardly stared at my iPhone wondering what I did when I used to have internet at my fingertips. But probably the best thing about being home was realizing that I can’t imagine being anywhere other than the Dominican Republic right now. I cherish my independence and the relationships that I’ve made in my town, I love being able to wake up and leisurely sip my coffee as I water my garden. I really missed speaking Spanish. And especially missed my puppy.

Dean & Deluca Sandwich

It was good to be back to visit family and friends for a few days but I couldn’t help but smile as I joined the rest of the passengers in applause as the wheels kissed the runway back on the island.

Plane Ride Back