Peace Corps, In Brief:

A solid twelve weeks after arriving in the beautiful Dominican Republic, I have finally decided to properly document the experience thus far. For those of you who don’t have the privilege of following this journey of mine on Instagram (@rebekahabana, follow me for NatGeo-quality landscapes and cool pics of my cat), fret not — I hope that this small blog post can offer some insight into qué lo qué está pasando aquí.

My Peace Corps experience began 30 minutes late in a stuffy conference room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Miami. Thirty-three idealistic aspirantes joined me as the room filled with an anxious anticipation reminiscent of the first day at a new school. Together we were given a rundown of rules and guidelines; a whirlwind of do’s and don’ts were thrown at us despite the fact that we were all too excited to absorb any of them. The next morning, bright and early, we lugged our belongings for the next two years to the Miami Airport and before we knew it, we were off!

I was late to staging, along with this beaut. My elastic sense of time has since proved useful in gaining confianza in a country where 12:00 translates to 2:30 and ahorita could mean “in two hours” or “’next week”

Once we boarded the plane the gravity of the life choice I was making hit me: I was about to leave everything I had ever known and venture, quite literally, into the unknown.

I forced myself to swallow the panic that rose in my throat and found my seat, 28C. The flight turned out to be one of the best of my life. I befriended the Dominican woman sitting next to me and she immediately put my mind at ease. It was then that I realized that things were going to be okay: I wasn’t moving forward alone. There is always a friendly face willing to compartir. Additionally, I was entering into these next two years with 33 other would-be volunteers who similarly had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

These aforementioned “others”, now official Peace Corps Volunteers of PCDR cohort 17- 01, have proven to be some of the most incredible people I have ever met. I had the pleasure of spending my first three months in country with them and I could not be more grateful to have them by my side.

Together we went through the training process, which was as follows: for the first three weeks we lived in Pantoja, which is located in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. During this initial part of training we each lived with our first host family and learned the basics of Dominican culture.

We learned how to hail a carro publico (imagine the vague idea of a taxi that takes the form of my old little blue Honda stuffed to capacity, and that is essentially a carro publico), not to buy fresh fruit off the street so as to avoid the ambiguously-termed amoeba, and how to play dominos.

Dominos takes a surprising amount of strategy. Dominos with Kevin Mills or any Dominican Don takes both strategy and the emotional wherewithal to accept the verbal abuse that comes when you make a foolish move or start to win.

We learned about the atrocities that write this country’s history and how to dance bachata. We worked on our Spanish and learned how to deal with the calls to “Mira esa tipa” and the constant attention that comes with being “Rubia” or “Americana”(…maybe I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with the constant cat-calling in a Machismo culture — that’s a topic for another day). Oh, and shots. We got a lot of shots. Vaccinate your children so that they don’t need a series of six shots as a 21-year-old in the middle of the Dominican Republic.

From this point we moved onto CBT — Community Based Training. Our cohort was split into its respective sectors, which are Community Economic Development (CED) and Education. We (being CED) had our CBT in the pueblo of Peralvillo, which is located North of Santo Domingo in the province of Monte Plata. I don’t have the words to describe the roller-coaster that was CBT and how grateful I am for the experience.

Work hard play hard. In our down time we spent time at the river, paseando in the colmado, singing karaoke, or, in this case, at a carnival that was randomly placed in one of the neighborhoods of Peralvillo.

Going into CBT I had a vague idea of what to expect but I learned very quickly that the idea of a “comfort zone” was an illusion. Once I stopped worrying about “breaking out of” my comfort zone, I realized that it was all in my head to begin with and I allowed myself to fully live in the moment.

Adapting to the circumstances at hand was an incredibly unique experience that challenged me to think in ways that I never had before. The communication and cultural barriers became much more apparent during CBT as we practiced building confianza, or trust, among community members and within the group itself. As a portion of our training we were assigned practicum groups and, within our practicum groups, we worked with local youth in the community on an entrepreneurship program called Construye Tus Sueños or, in English, Build Your Dreams. The program walks participants through the process of starting their own business and teaches technical aspects and entrepreneurial tools. All of these lessons then culminate in a national competition wherein participants can win scholarships or business financing to make their business dreams a reality. It’s an empowering program that I hope to take on as a secondary project in site.

The jovenes we worked with are all driven and brilliant and I am confident that they will all go on to do great things in their futures. In the mean time, I hope that if they go out on a Friday night to Colmado Marcelo to sing karaoke they remember the gringa that made them sing Amor Prohibido with her.

The close of CBT brought the cohort back together for a minute so that we could swear in as official volunteers before heading off to our sites. After Swear-In, I hopped on an uncharacteristically frigid bus and trekked across the Dominican Republic to the northwest province of Santiago Rodriguez, which brings me to present in my site in La Lima de Palmarejo where I will be working with an agricultural cooperative for the next two years.

Caribe Tours busses operate at a balmy -27°F thanks to blasting A/C over which you have no control.

This post doesn’t do these last few weeks justice; in fact, it barely skims the surface of what we’re doing here and what is yet to come. However, I hope you can appreciate this glimpse into my life as it’s been these days. In the words of the lovely Selena Quintanilla, “Me siento muy…excited!” I’m excited to see what these next two years bring, and I’ll be chronicling my progress as I go, si Dios quiere.