Exploring Today’s Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic
By Erica Burman on Thursday, March 7th, 2013
One of the key components of this trip is the possibility of connection to Peace Corps. For those of us who are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), we relish when we connect with currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and have the opportunity to visit the main office. What is different from our experience? What are Volunteers working on today? For those of us who are not RPCVs, just what is this thing called Peace Corps? How can we support it today?
In our group, we have five RPCVs: Gary and Jan Sonderland, India 1971-73; Martia Glass, India 1965-67 and also Peace Corps Medical Officer South Africa; Cheryl Onega, Solomon Islands 1997-99 and Cameroon 2003-04; Kate Schachter, Ghana 2004-07. For us, it felt like a homecoming, excited to directly connect to the work of Peace Corps.
On Friday, February 22 we traveled to Santo Domingo, over the mountains to the south side of the island – the leeward side with safe harbor, where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World, for better and for worse. Our first stop was at the Peace Corps office for a tour. It was hard to drag us away from the Volunteer’s Lounge. A few of the 200+ currently-serving PCVs who happened to be there had our attention, talking about their projects. One was working on human rights development and birth certificates or passports for the Haitians living in the bateys (the sugar plantations, as briefly described in my previous blog). Part of her project is a Facebook page: declaromisderechos (declare my rights). Another Volunteer was working on a reforestation project, developing pine tree forests. Another spoke proudly of the low Early Termination (ET) and high service extension rate in the Dominican Republic. Martia, the former South Africa Medical Officer (MO), was so absorbed in talking with the Medical Officer in Santo Domingo that we inadvertently left her behind when we walked off for lunch!
Art Flanagan is the Country Director, and he was able to join us for awhile at the restaurant. Last year Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary year in the Dominican Republic. Even during the turmoil of coups and military intervention during the post-Trujillo years (dictator from 1930-1961), Peace Corps stood firm in the DR. As the first Country Director stated (his quote proudly painted on an office wall), “Governments come and go, but the people stay. Peace Corps will be with the people and will stay.” Art spoke of the work of the volunteers, and also the important fund-raising and on-going support work of the Friends of the Dominican Republic.
After lunch we checked into our hotel, a clean and comfortable place with wi-fi, in easy walking distance of the Colonial District. On our way through the main street to Cristóbal Colón Plaza, some of us were distracted by the parade of drummers and Scouts in celebration of International Girl Scouts World Thinking Day, but managed to reconnect with the group. There were a lot of “firsts in the New World” to see, so we picked up a tour guide: the first church, the first paved roadway, the first monastery, the first newspaper office, the first sundial (I know I’m missing some). Plaques with dates that began “14–” or “15–” were everywhere. A Spanish galleon sat in the harbor, completing the image of early settlement. The galleon is a replica, on tour to various locations in the Americas.
The next day we stopped in Moca at FilterPure (www.filterpurefilters.org), the local company that produces the clay water filters that we brought to the Haitian batey earlier in our trip (see my second blog posting ). These are ‘best in class’ filters made at a site that has been a great source of clay and pottery talent for generations. While the cost is low, the distribution challenge is great, because those who need it the most (refugees and the very poor) are the least able to pay. When development dollars dropped off during the recent recession, so did their business – and the workers kept their ceramic skills sharp by creating art objects for sale.
Before returning to Home Base, we dropped the first of our group at the Santiago airport (too soon!). Yon and Patty Shangkuan were part of the “not RPCV” group, but were glad to have learned so much about Peace Corps, an organization that they knew of only vaguely, and the National Peace Corps Association, which they previously knew nothing about. The Next Step travel program left them impressed with the dedication of PCVs, and an appreciation for what is accomplished in very simple working and living conditions. The volunteers are “so young, but with great promise for the future,” said Yon. They left happy with the trip, which was “meaningful, not just fun” according to Patty, and were encouraged by all they experienced.
Sunday, February 24 was a play day. We drove west along the coast to the Teleferico, a cable car that takes groups up the Isabelle de Torre mountain. The grounds at the top are expansive and beautiful, with a feeling of controlled wildness. We could have spent a full day wandering through the maze of paths, unmarked, but with the giant statue of Christ at the top to easily guide us back to the cable car return. Walking through woods and glens full of wild plants that I consider to be house plants in Wisconsin, I identified Wandering Jew, Haitian bridal veil, Peace Plant, and many, many more. But rather than spending the whole day on the mountain, we caught some beach time and shopping therapy in Sosua, which included snorkeling for some of us on a coral reef not far off the beach. The fish were brilliant, and responded well to the plastic bottle of bread crumbs I brought along to entice them closer.
On Monday, February 25, we had an opportunity to visit the Brugal rum factory and the Amber Museum in Puerto Plata. Samples of rum – from the “white lightning” to an aged, smooth finish variety – were included after the tour of the first-class, fully modernized bottling facility.We moved on to the Amber Museum with a glow. There were beautifully presented displays of the aging process of amber, formed from the sap of trees that have been extinct for millions of years.
But for me, the highlight of the day, and maybe the trip, was the visit to the mountain village of Los Batatas. Because of scheduling adjustments (the Peace Corps experience: always remain flexible!), we drove much of the way up the mountain in Dave’s 4WD jeep. This is his original DR home, and he knew many people along the way. The two 90+ year old sisters who lived off the land in their simple home will remain near and dear in my heart. We saw the gravity-fed water system that (R)PCV Amy had installed to support the families all along the way the mountain (including the Doñas Maxima) , and the house that (R)PCV Duncan lived in while working on his biomass stove project. The views out over the mountainside, over the industrialized plains, all the way to the pounding surf of the Atlantic was truly impressive. I believe it is time for me to do another two years of service.