My first week in La Cumbre has been great because it has been filled with contrast to the past month. When I first arrived in the Dominican Republic, I hadn’t really considered the fact that there can be many very different lifestyles; I figured that one country has one culture. It turns out that is not the case (of course), and it was naïve of me to think that in the first place.
Getting here was fairly easy, except for a few moments here and there. The Jenns and I were the only three going north in our barrio (the other two are here for setting up IT labs in small towns and the three of us are Environment), so we caught a guagua into town, and then needed to catch a big tour bus up to Santiago. We each had five weeks of luggage, so we had to buy two seats a piece. When we got to Km 9, the rest of the environment group was there! This worked out nicely, because now we could sit back and follow the kids that actually speak Spanish fluently. The 16 of us got on a bus and everything was fine until we got to a town called La Vega. Upon arrival, a women who was supposed to get off but didn’t because someone stole her purse. She was talking really fast and so most of us couldn’t understand her, but eventually it came out that she thought the Americans did it. This made the other Dominican passengers laugh, one of them pointed out that Americans don’t steal things, they are the ones to steal from. We laughed, but the lady didn’t think it was that funny. Oopsies. So the bus driver started to get mad at the lady but she wouldn’t get off, so she rode with us the rest of the way and was getting pretty upset. At one point she said something to the effect of; I am going to kill one of these Americans before the end of this (she said it on the phone, not to us). Luckily, no one was killed… but the bus driver did have to stop on the side of the highway for 15 minutes as the cops came and searched the bus. It was pretty ridiculous.
The second major issue was that once we got to Santiago, we had to ride in another guagua up to La Cumbre, but as it turned out, all the good Spanish speakers were at the beginning of town and the medium Spanish speakers (including myself) were in the middle. This meant that after the good Spanish speakers were dropped off, we had to fend for ourselves… so, my friend Ann and I were dropped off three Km down the road in the wrong town, we live next to the La Cumbre community center and they dropped us at El Llano’s community center. Oopsies. We walked about ¾ of a mile with some drunk guy speaking to us way to fast, he kept telling me he didn’t know his way around this area because he was from La Cumbre… that was my first clue that we were in the wrong spot. So as Ann and I stood on this gravel road with some random drunk guy trying to figure out if we are on the wrong road, a shinny red Jeep Wrangler pulls up and guy gets out and starts speaking English to Ann. Woohoo, as it turned out, the driver of the Jeep was an American doctor who was running a free clinic for the town, and the other guy was a student at Brown University. Other than the embarrassment of being 3km away from our town, it was quite a relief. They gave us a ride to our town and we got to listen to a little bit of the Beatles on the way.
Once we got into town, everything was great. The town is built around an Amber Mine and is on a mountain side pretty close to the top. The view from town/my house/ everyone’s house is awesome. It looks down onto Puerta Plata and huge green valley. Because we are farther from the capital, gringos are a bit more rare, this meant everyone was very helpful and had lots of questions! The people speak slower out here too so I can understand just about everyone, except there was an old guy at the store earlier who was completely impossible to understand.
My new family is great, and very different from the Santo Domingo family. The most noticeable thing is that, in contrast to the 7 girls and 2 boys in the last house, the new family is three boys (18-22) (Rafael Antonio, Rafael de Jesus, Juan Carlos), the father (Rafael de los angeles), the mother (Olivia) and a 10-year-old girl (Maria) . . . they came up with a nickname for me, they are gonna call me Rafael. The dad was really nice and even put a door in for me today. When I left at five there was a curtain, and now I have a door with a lock, its sweet. If only the light switch to my room wasn’t in the hall. The mom made some hot chocolate which was probably the best I have had, I think its because the milk came from a cow down the street, and the chocolate came from a cacao plant from down the street (or possibly the one in the front yard). The boys are all about a girl PCV up the street and I tried to help out with “conversating” with “da ladies”.
Something that I thought was interesting was that five of the guy’s friends were mute; I also met a couple mute guys up the street. This meant that my host brothers spoke sign language too, and had to do some translating for me into sign language. It was surprising how much communicating got done despite having to go from English to Spanish to Sign language and then back again. It was actually kind of helpful because the signs that they were using helped me relate the words to their meaning in English. It also made me think about this new book that a friend of mine gave me right before leaving (thanks Barret) called the Island of the Colorblind. It’s a memoir about a man who goes to see how people behave differently when there is a common disability amongst the population, in his case colorblindness. I just cracked it open on Friday and he mentions in the beginning a bit about a population that is for the most part deaf, how relevant! His point was that there were all sorts of benefits to the use of sign language and that the large presence of this disability actually provides a strength and an advantage to its people… I agreed with him because the sign for being full of food is easy to remember because it’s the same motion as when there isn’t room on the bus, two birds with one stone. I also thought it would be of advantage because sign language is universal and that would mean that the girl in our group that can sign (but not really speak Spanish) would be able to communicate with the townspeople… but it turns out that the sign language here is distinct and doesn’t really translate to American Sign language perfectly. I was also very impressed at how well the deaf/mute population can dance. At one point, I was being shown the steps to the bachata by a deaf guy and couldn’t figure out how he was keeping rhythm better than I could. I figured it was probably because they had the bass up so high that he could feel it. It could also be because dancing goes on just about every night.
Despite the constant black outs in the evenings, the people of La Cumbre still find a way to get a dance party going every night at 8:30. How it works is the girls up the street who’s family owns a Guagua, turns the 8 passenger van into what we have deemed the “party guagua” by putting in enourmous speakers, which then drives up to a house or little shop called a colmado and bumps bachata, marangue and regaton loud enough that the entire town can hear it. At that point, family members from age 6 to 60 make there way over and start to break it down. It’s pretty sweet, but as gringos, we are getting tired of dancing. We finally had to tell the party guagua that 4 nights in a row is the limit.