Esta es mi vida

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dame un poco de perspectiva

  Early this afternoon me and three medical students were returning to my little, mountain pueblo in the Dominican Republic from our trip to a rural region of Haiti. I leaned back in the car and asked them what they thought about what we had just seen.

   One of them said that returning here made him feel both angry and guilty because of the extreme poverty and hopelessness he saw in Haiti.
   I made it a point to say, "You do realize that we are in a poor part of a 3rd world country <b>right now</b>, right?"

 It's important to keep some perspective.

We took a health survey of houses near my pueblo yesterday.
  One of the houses was about 2 kilometers from the nearest road. We had to hike to get there. It was a one room house with 12 people living in it. One of the kids had obvious signs of malnutricion (for instance, his hair had begun to lose color).

  There was no kitchen or bathroom (or even a latrine). No electricity or running water. And worst of all, no floor in the house. Only dirt.
  Almost everyone there had been born and raised in that house. Most of whom were less than 12 years old. Their normal diets didn't include fruits, vegetables, or meat, just rice and yucca.

  And yet this wasn't unusual. We visit several more houses that day without floors, bathrooms or running water. Where the adults in the house couldn't even remember the names of all the people living there, much less their ages. Where no one had incomes of any kind.

  And still you need to put this into perspective. Because even this situation looked relatively wealthy compared to what we just saw in Haiti.
  In Haiti, kids spent much of their time waiting alongside the dirt road for a car to come by to beg from. One woman offered to sell her baby to us as we drove by. Malnutricion is the rule, not the exception.

   Even the landscape was depressing. It was dry and without shade from the tropical sun. Most of the trees had been cut down, and it seemed like its been months since the last rain. It's amazing how much things can change in just a couple kilometers.
   None of the houses had floors, electricity, running water, or much of anything other than a zinc roof.

  I know its going to take me several days to get over this visit emotionally (it did last time too). So I totally understand why the medical student said what he did.
  When I call my family in The States I try to explain what I saw, but I know that there is no way that they could ever understand.

  During my last visit to The States in November I had several instances of reverse culture-shock.
   One example is how everyone is so damn scared of everything in America. The TV tells them to be afraid of something, and, guess what? They are! Everyone is afraid of losing what little they have.

  In my community there is none of that fear. You see, the worst has already happened. You don't have anything to lose, so why be afraid of losing stuff now? It's a very liberating feeling, actually.

 Another example is how people in America get all uptight over stupid shit that isn't important.

   So the f*ck what if someone cut you off in traffic? So the f*ck what if you couldn't buy some stupid piece of sh*t that you don't really need? So the f*ck what if your favorite sports team lost? So the f*ck what if your favorite politician got made a fool of?
   Does any of that really f*cking matter?

Please allow me to give you a free clue: I see more smiles here in my poor pueblo than The States.

People are nicer here than in The States.
People are more willing to share what little they have here than in The States.
  The reason is because once you scrape away all the bullsh*t and get down to what really matters, you discover that stuff just gets in the way of happiness.
   What really matters is people. Your friends. Your loved-ones. Your family. Everything else is just a distraction.

It sounds like a cliche, but it is more true than many people realize.
  Maybe I'm a little bit emotional right now (probably am), and my english is probably piss-poor because I've been speaking spanish all week, but I think most Americans could use a reality check.
   I should emphasize: don't be afraid of reality.

Christmas without gifts

I can still remember my brother waking me up one early Christmas morning when I was only 5 years old.
  We snuck downstairs as quietly as we could and opened up our presents.

 It was the last American Christmas I ever celebrated.

  After we opened our presents our parents explained to us that this would be the last time. That the entire concept of Christmas was being corrupted by mindless consumerism so they were opting out.
  Of course I didn't understand. I was only 5 years old, after all. But I never made a big deal of it in the following years. Exchanging presents for Christmas never became a habit in my life.

  My parents weren't hippies or even idealists. They were simple working class folk that saw something that appeared sick and decided to avoid it.
  It helped that both my birthday and my brother's were right around Christmas anyway.
It also helped that my grandparents on my mother's side were Jehovah Witnesses, and so didn't believe in celebrating Christmas (although I never understood the reasoning for that).

  In the years that followed I always felt a little isolated and weird for opting out of Christmas. I tell friends that I don't want them to buy me presents because it would make me feel guilty for not getting them something.

  Then, when I turned 30, I met a friend who was raised Eastern Orthodox. She told me that in her church people didn't give presents for Christmas, because Christmas was all about the birth of Christ and nothing else.
   They give presents on "Little Christmas", the 12th day of Christmas, January 6, when the 3 Wise Men showed up with gifts.
   It made a lot more sense to me than giving presents on Christmas Day. It seems much more in the true spirit of the season.

   Nevertheless, I still don't celebrate Christmas. You see, I'm not a Christian either. I like the idea of a Gawd. I like what Jesus had to say. I just don't believe the Bible is the word of Gawd.

<b>The vast majority of the world</b>

  Two years ago I joined the Peace Corps. They sent me to a small pueblo in the Dominican Republic, within walking distance of Haiti. I am almost finished with my service now.
  People here are very religious.

  Christmas is a very big deal here. The entire country goes on vacation for the second half of December. Almost every night there is much drinking, eating, and dancing.

  What there isn't here is a tradition of gift giving.
Not for birthdays. Not for anniversaries. Not for Christmas.

  You see, the vast majority of the world is very poor. So the mindless consumerism of giving and getting gifts because of what the calendar says is not an option. The money simply isn't there to spend.
   This is the reality for 4 billion or so people in the world. The American-style Christmas is the exception to the rule. I've learned that I'm not the weirdo after all. You are.

  That's not to say these aren't very giving people. A very poor society is based upon sharing. You are simply expected to share whatever you have with your family and neighbors. Doing otherwise is not even considered an option.
  And the beautiful thing I've discovered is that the poorer the people are, the more eager they are to share what little they have.
  For instance, I could show up unannounced at any casa in my pueblo around the middle of the day and they would insist on feeding me. It would be an insult to turn them down. It doesn't matter if they had no electricity, running water, or even a floor. Whatever little food they had would be shared.
   That's why I've gotten into the habit of always having some fresh fruit with me if I plan on visiting anyone.

<b>Concerning regalos and juguetes</b>


  This is Camela, my dominican neighbor. She's 7 years old.
I used to watch her play with this worn-out soccer ball that was missing large patches of leather.
   I got the great idea of buying her a brand-new, good-quality, soccer ball the next time I went to Santo Domingo. I pictured in my mind how she would be excited when she got it, show it to her friends, and play with it all the time.

  What happened instead was a look of confusion on her face. It was obvious that she had never been given a brand-new anything before in her life. She didn't know what to do with it or how to react. Why was I giving her this?
  The new soccer ball vanished into her casa and I haven't seen it since. She has, however, continued to play with her worn-out ball.

  So what do kids do about toys if their parents and relatives aren't spending themselves deeply into debt for Christmas, like in America?

  These are a couple of my neighborhood kids that were playing out in front of my house one day.

  These are common toys in my pueblo. They are made from old oil cartons. They put wires through them, and then put plastic bottle caps on the ends for wheels. They fill it up with rocks for weight, and then attach a string to the front so that they can drag it through the streets.

  In other words, instead of using their imagination on Chinese-made plastic toys that their parents spent hundreds of dollars for, they use their imaginations to actually make the toys.
  What a concept!

  Plastic bottle caps are widely used with the kids in my pueblo.
For instance, everyone knows Dominicans love baseball. But what do you do if you can't afford a baseball and a baseball bat?
   Then you use a tree branch for a bat and a plastic bottle cap for the ball.
Plastic bottle caps won't fly very far, but you can put a wicked spin on them, and are darn near impossible to hit with a tree branch.

  How about those kids who are more artistically incline?

  This is a guitar that another neighborhood kid made out of a 2X4, an old can, a plastic bottle, and 3 wires. I tried it. It works.

  I've also seen kids here make go-carts (not the kind you see on TV, but simple and unsafe ones) and hacky-sacks.

  So while you are putting hundreds of dollars onto your credit cards this holiday season to buy the kids in your life toys that they will get bored with inside of a month, consider what billions of kids that don't celebrate American-style holidays do every day.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Third Goal

“The logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.”

President John F. Kennedy

   There is a lot spoken about "reverse culture shock" from the Peace Corps. Without a doubt, the first couple weeks back in the United States I experienced a sense of disorientation.
After two years of serving in the D.R. the first three things I noticed was: the cleanliness, the quiet, and the high prices. Seriously?!? $9 for a sandwich?!?

  But those things you get over pretty quickly. What is much harder to do is to communicate your experiences.
   The first thing that you get asked by your friends and family when you get back is, "So, how was it over there?"

  How does one answer that question? You just spent two years of your life doing something that was life changing. How do you create a one sentence answer to that question? It's impossible.
   Some of it was horrible. Some of it was immensely rewarding. Much of it was simply boring or emotionally challenging. And then there is the parts that are hard to describe.
  Inevitably I answer, "I'm glad I did it. I wouldn't do it again, but I'm glad I went."

  The real problems happen when you want to tell the details of your experiences.
These things are very important to you. Yet you discover that most people simply don't care. They are wrapped up in the minutia of their everyday lives and have a hard time seeing beyond it. Family and friends have usually not been interested in seeing my pictures, much less hearing my stories.
  And even if they do care, they often are unable to.
   It occurred to me last night when I was trying to explain to a friend some factors of life in a third world country that she wasn't understanding what I was saying. Not because she wasn't listening, but because what I was describing was so far outside of her life experience that she didn't have a basis of comparison to use.

   I've come to the conclusion that my Peace Corps experiences are for myself.
Which is unfortunate, because I would like to share, but sharing requires at least two interested parties.

  The other conclusion I've come to is that I can't go back. I can't go back to my former life that revolves around useless commercial culture, work, trivia, and a surrender to a life of "just getting by". I couldn't live with myself if I did.
   There is a much larger world out there and I'm going to experience as much as I can.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to conquer time

    I was standing in chest-deep water near a small waterfall. I had to keep shifting my weight from one foot to another because the small fish in the pool kept nibbling on my toes and it tickled. I was watching a couple of muchachos in my youth group horsing around and jumping off a huge bolder into the pool. There was lots of laughing and exclamations of "Ay coño!" We had spent the morning putting down the first coat of paint on a mapa del mundo at the local liceo, and now we were rewarding ourselves.
    There was a splash next to me. At the top of a 30-foot rock wall that leaned out over the pool was a mango tree. I picked the mango out of the water and began to peel the skin. It was delicious.

Today was a good day. I wish all days in the Peace Corps could be like this. Unfortunately they aren't.

Most days in the Peace Corps involve trying to wait out the heat of the day in my sweltering casa, or at least until the luz returns so I can sit in front of my fan.
Most nights involve trying to ignore the blaring bachata music of the local colmado.
 Most days in the Peace Corps involve feeling like a moron because I can't understand my vencino's campo spanish.
 Most nights involve sitting alone in the dark trying not to feel homesick. Most days in the Peace Corps involve spending days preparing for a class that the students arrive 30 minutes late for, if it doesn't rain, or if there isn't a festival that no one told you about, or if the luz hadn't arrived in two days so you can't use the computers.

 Like anything in life, the frustration and failures make the victories sweeter.

I had an epiphany the other day.
It occurred to me that this past year in the Peace Corps has been one of the longest of my life. Normally that would imply that the past year has been very boring, but that isn't true. If anything this past year has been almost too full.

 It's a well-known fact for anyone over the age of 30 that life speeds up as you get older.
When you were in grade school, summer vacations seemed to last forever. Trying to see the end of them was like trying to see over the curve of the Earth. It's impossible.
 Summers in college were jam-packed with things that only seemed to end when you ran out of money.
 But once you get over 30 time speeds up. Summer seems to slip by before you could do all the stuff you wanted to get done.
 After 40 time goes even faster. You find yourself saying things like, "How is it possible that it is September already? And why do things hurt on me all the time?"
The two years before I joined the Peace Corps were the fastest of my life.

 Then suddenly evenything slowed waaayyy down. I had to stop and wonder why.

 It occurred to me that the reason why things speed up for people is because they get into routines. They start doing the same things every day. If you do the same thing every day, at the same time of day, ten thousand times, is it any wonder that your days start to blend together? You put yourself on auto-pilot and start thinking about other things that you would rather be doing, while you are living your life.

 The way to slow life down is to get out of your comfort zone and do things you have never done before. Do things that you aren't good at. Do you things radically different from what you've been doing. When you dramatically change things up it forces you to suddenly focus on where you are, what you are doing.

 I can tell you from experience: it sort of sucks at first.

 The first thing you realize is that you aren't as smart as you thought you were. That's always an unpleasant experience no matter how many times life forces you to relearn it. There's nothing like the moment when you are forced to say to yourself, "Hey, I'm kind of stupid! How did this happen?"

 The second thing you do is ask yourself, "What the H*ll have I been doing with my life recently?" An honest self-examination is never an easy thing.

 But then, like anything in life that is good for you, it gets better after you've managed to swallow the bitter medicine. It's only after you've discarded some of your illusions that you can gain some wisdom.

 The wisdom I've gained this past year is something the people of the Dominican Republic have taught me: there is no need for fear to rule your life.

 This bit of wisdom occurred to me the other day when about half a dozen of my little neighbor kids came over my casa to play. None of them were older than seven. In the States this would be unheard of. If you are a single man you can't even stare at a little kid, much less touch one, without everyone suspecting you of being a child molester. And what parents would send their kids to your house without escort for any reason?
 It's sad that people suspect the worst about you without any proof. People are afraid all the time in the States. Most of the time they aren't even sure what they are afraid of.

But that's not true here in the DR. People aren't afraid of their neighbors because they know their neighbors. In the DR you are more than likely to be handed a baby by someone you don't know.
     When the power goes out, which is every day, what do you do? You go visit your neighbors. You sit out on their porch and drink suggary coffee and talk about nothing important. And when everyone knows you if becomes impossible to walk down the street without people stopping you to talk. Imagine that in today's world?

 In my pueblo there are 7,000 people and only 3 cops. The cops have exactly one motorcycle for transportation. There is no enforcement of laws at all. Yet serious crime is practically unheard of. It's amazing how society can function without armed men to "protect you". Fear is a great control mechanism. I'm safer here than if I was in the States.

 It's fear that locks people into predictable patterns. After all, if you try something new you might fail at it and look stupid. Fear is ultimately what makes your life go by faster than it should. Thus fear is the biggest thief of them all.
 It's amazing how a bunch of functionally illiterate farmers can teach you about life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

And you thought YOUR political system was broken

It's election season in the Dominican Republic, and that means that politicians get even dumber than normal.
Yesterday the Dominican Senate apologized to the United States for what the candidate of the opposition party said about President Obama.
"If Obama, who came from Africa, and grew up over there can become president, why can't any of you reach as high?" said Hipólito Mejía, loosely translated, to a group of New York City clergy on April 4th.
Thirty-one of the Dominican Republic’s 32-member senate Senate approved a resolution Thursday condemning the remarks, calling them "unfortunate" and a "disrespectful insult." One senator, a political ally of Mejía, refused to sign the apology.
If this blunder was some sort of exception, Dominican politicians could be foregiven. Unfortunately, it isn't.

This is the second scandal of the week for the candidacy of former Dominican President Hipolito Mejia. The other scandal is more disturbing.
Radhames Jimenez says retired army Col. Pedro Julio Goico has been caught on a recorded telephone conversation instructing a Haitian accomplice to help discredit Haiti President Michel Martelly, and ultimately force him from office. Jimenez declined to discuss a potential motive or to say whether he is pursuing criminal charges.
Goico was an aide to former Dominican President Hipolito Mejia. The former president on Friday denied the existence of any plot and called the allegations absurd.
Hipolito Mejia was actually a very progressive politician while president, who proposed the country's first social security system.The problem was that during his term in office the 2nd largest private bank in the DR collapsed due to fraud linked to political corruption.
The resulting financial crisis ended with a bailout from the central bank (that benefited the wealthy elite), which triggered a massive currency devaluation and a 30% inflation rate. Most of the fraudsters never went to prison.

Running against Hipolito Mejia is Danilo Medina Sánchez, a career politician with the current governoring party.

Politics Dominican style

Most Americans complain that their politicians speak a lot, but say nothing.
Dominican politicians have a solution for that - they don't speak at all. At least not about the issues.

There are no political debates in the Dominican Republic. None.
Politicians run on slogans that are as meaningless as possible.

For example, Danilo's slogans basically translate to “Correct what is wrong, Continue what is good, and do what has never been done.”
If you think that is bad, you should see Hipolito's. It's "Llego Papa", which roughly translates to "Father is here", or "Here's daddy". No, seriously.


And it gets worse.
Instead of talking about issues, both candidates have created campaign songs. They rent trucks with huge stacks of speakers (run by generators, because no car battery could power speakers that large) and go through towns all over the country playing these songs at ear-splitting levels.
The songs don't say much. Mostly they just repeat a simple campaign slogan and the candidate's name over and over again.

So why do Dominicans tolerate these politicians? Because their jobs depend on them.
There is no real civil service in the Dominican Republic. So when an opposition party takes over there is a general housecleaning, all the way down to teachers and janitors in the local grade school.
Thus Dominicans tightly embrace their political party that they openly know is corrupt. In many cases there is only one person in a large family with a job. Thus 5 or 10 people may depend on their political party winning or everyone goes hungry.

The other side of this employment situation is that people get appointed to jobs based on politics rather than qualifications. Thus you have teachers in high schools that are barely literate.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Between the earth and the sky: Invisible Millions

Every society has its invisible class.
In America that invisible class are the homeless. Hundreds of thousands of living reminders of "there but for the grace of God I go." A sub-class living among us that working people don't even like to acknowledge out of fear.

I used to think like that before I joined the Peace Corps. That's when I discovered that being homeless was not the worst thing that could happen to you. Not even close.

When the pirate problem of Somalia broke into America's consciences following the 2006 invasion by Ethiopia, people had trouble putting into context. It seemed like something straight out of a history book.

You can put slavery into that same historical context. It's something from a very different time. Every nation on Earth, at least every one with a working government, has outlawed slavery.
Yet, the slavery problem has never been worse.
Despite more than a dozen international conventions banning slavery in the past 150 years, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history.
There are between 12 and 27 million slaves in the world right now, depending on who is counting. Slavery is the 2nd-most profitable criminal enterprise in the world, after drug-trafficking. The average annual profits from a slave were $3,175 in 2007.
The majority of the slave trade exists in south Asia and Africa, although it extends to most of the nations of the world.

In the western hemisphere the problem is slavery is mostly unsubstantial - with one big exception: Haiti.
Poverty has forced at least 225,000 children in Haiti's cities into slavery as unpaid household servants, far more than previously thought, a report said Tuesday.
The Pan American Development Foundation's report also said some of those children — mostly young girls — suffer sexual, psychological and physical abuse while toiling in extreme hardship.
Young servants are known as "restavek" — Haitian Creole for "stays with" — and their plight is both widely known and a source of great shame in the Caribbean nation that was founded by a slave revolt more than 200 years ago.
That survey came before the 2010 earthquake, which almost certainly made things worse.

The plight of the Haitians is a very personal thing for me because I am living just 5 kilometers from the border of Haiti. Many of my students cross the Dominican border every week to attend my classes.
Doing this has certain risks.

The police and enlisted men in the Dominican military are extremely poorly paid. I've been told their average pay is around 5,000 pesos a month (about $140). It's nearly impossible to live on that.
Thus they supplement their incomes by shaking down Haitian immigrants for bribes.

Instead of fixing the situation by paying the police and soldiers a living wage, the government created a special unit of police just for the tourist areas, called Politur. These police are better trained and better paid, in the hopes that they will be less incline to shake down the tourists that the economy depends on.

On a recent trip through Dajabon, my bus was pulled over by soldiers and all the Haitians were yanked off the bus. The bribe for not having a visa was 100 pesos. The bribe for having proper documentation was 50 pesos.
I can testify to the humiliation and intimidation of getting pulled off a public bus at a military checkpoint, and I look nothing like a Haitian. Unlike Haitians, I could appeal to the American embassy.

The "Haitians" I am talking about may have never been to Haiti, nor consider themselves Haitian.
The only reason they are considered "Haitian" is because of a quirk in Dominican law.
For 75 years the Dominican Republic’s constitution granted citizenship to almost everyone born in the country. But since 2007 the government has sought to deny the citizenship of people whose parents were illegal migrants, a policy incorporated in an amended constitution in 2010. Up to 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian origin may be affected. Almost 500 of them have complained to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that they have been left stateless. The IACHR has condemned the new policy. But on December 1st the DR’s Supreme Court endorsed the new rule by rejecting a Dominican-born man’s request for a birth certificate.
[Being stateless is like being] "between the earth and the sky."
- Mohamed Alenezi, Bedouin from Kuwait.

Statelessness is a global problem effecting between 15 and 25 million people in the world.
These people live in a netherworld almost completely devoid of human rights and legal protections. In most cases, stateless people are invisible to societies.
"One of the big problems we have is that this simply is not recognised as being a major issue globally," said Mark Manly, head of the stateless unit at the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
"In the media there's very little discussion, in universities there's very little research and in the U.N., until relatively recently, there hasn't been a lot of discussion either, so the effect of all that is that we still have major gaps in our knowledge," Manly told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Statelessness exacerbates poverty, creates social tensions, breaks up families and destroys children's futures. In some cases it can even fuel wars when disenfranchised people pick up weapons, as has happened in Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The effects vary by country, but typically stateless people are barred from education, healthcare and formal employment. They often can't start a business, own property, hold a driving licence or open a bank account. They can't get married legally or travel abroad to work or visit family.
And they can't vote, which means they can't elect politicians who might be able to improve their lot...
Stateless people are vulnerable to exploitation, including slavery and prostitution, and risk arbitrary detention. Their lack of identity can make accessing legal help impossible -- no one knows how many stateless people are locked up worldwide.
Statelessness, along with extreme poverty, is a leading factor in the global slave trade.
Generally you never hear about stateless groups until people start getting killed.
The biggest stateless problem in the world is the Palestinians. While large stateless populations exist in Europe and Africa, most of these invisible populations live in Asia.

There is one major exception to this Asian-centered trend - Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
In the DR birth certificates are needed for such matters as buying a mobile phone, enrolling in school or getting married. Absurdly, they must have been issued no more than 90 days before; the state makes money by charging to renew them. People who had previously replaced their certificates many times were suddenly rejected.
Officials deny that these people are stateless, saying that as the children of Haitians they can apply for Haitian citizenship. But many no longer have any ties to the country of their parents’ birth.
“There’s an entire blackmail industry around the Haitian immigration in the country”
- Jose R. Taveras, Immigration Agency director

I was hardly surprised the other day when my Dominican neighbor told me that "Todos los haitianos son ladrones" (All Haitians are thieves). I've been repeatedly warned to stay away from Haitians neighborhoods.
Since I used to live in a San Francisco ghetto, I shook off the warnings as just racist slanders.
Then, during a visit to a Haitian mercado last week, I discovered that a pocket of my pants was slashed with a razor in the hopes of getting my cell phone to fall out. I thought that was a pretty bold thing to do.

To be fair to Dominicans, their country hardly has the resources to deal with its own people, much less the massive immigrations flows from Haiti.
The Dominican Republic is a "boat people" nation. In just the last three months there has been two tragedies from rickity boats full of desperate Dominicans fleeing to Puerto Rico sinking. Most Dominicans I've met do not know how to swim.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Much needed perspective

One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was that I felt the need for more perspective on life.
Two years in the Peace Corps, living in a different country with a different culture, learning a different language, will give you more perspective than the average American can handle. You have no choice but to broaden your mind, both to the bad and the good of your host country, and of your own country.

I am here as a teacher. My specialty is computers, although I do lots of other teaching.
This has presented me with two major obstacles to overcome:

1) How to teach students about computers when electricity is undependable? For instance, this past Saturday there was absolutely no electricity all day. When computers break in this country it is usually the power supply that goes bad because the electrical current fluctuates so much.

The lack of electricity and water is not unexpected, and is something you just have to get used to.
So is the fact that my Spanish is muy pobre.
The other obstacle, however, is much more difficult to overcome:

2) The educational system here is an absolute disaster.

People in The States like to talk about how bad the American educational system is. A single day in a Dominican school would change their perspective. The Dominican Republic has the worst public education system in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, that includes being worse than Haiti.
[public expenditure for education] is 2 percent of the GDP, compared to 4 percent average in the region. There are not enough infrastructures to provide access for all children. As a result, students only receive about two hours of education a day in overcrowded classrooms.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations' organization that connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help development, by 2006, only 56.9 percent of the professors had levels equivalent to bachelor's degree and less than 5 percent accomplished the official scholar curriculum.
Those who cannot afford private school might not graduate from high school since only 48 percent of the matriculated students get a high school diploma.
As bad as that sounds, in reality it is much worse. Here are a few anecdotes:

I overheard a teacher telling her students that there are two continents in the world - the west continent and the east continent.

I am planning on giving a workshop to the high school teachers on how to use Microsoft Word. I decided that it would be great if I took one of their current exams and converted it to Word, thus showing how the knowledge could directly make a positive impact in their work (they currently use exams created on a typewriter, or handwritten, and then photocopy it). So I asked for a copy of a current exam.
The exam is full of misspellings.

I got a global map in both English and Spanish and showed it to the neighborhood kids. I asked them to find the Dominican Republic on it. Since American students fail this test too, it didn't surprise me that the kids couldn't do it. What did surprise me was that the kids had no idea what I was asking them. They had no concept of what a map was and what it was used for.

Despite all these shortcomings, the current students are obviously the best educated the Dominican Republic has ever seen. Much of the adult population is functionally illiterate. It's a sad statement that mi pobre español is superior to most native speakers in my pueblo when it comes to literacy.
The libraries here, when there actually is one, is full of brand-new books. They've never been used. Go into anyone's home and the only book you will find is the Bible. There is no tradition of reading here.

And yet I still feel lucky. The students I have are generally respectful and eager to learn. Other Peace Corps volunteers tell me horror stories of students that are out of control and make teaching a class impossible.
Classes here can't last longer than a hour because students simply shut down after 45 minutes. They've never had to concentrate on anything longer than that.

Which brings me to an epiphany I had the other day while visiting another volunteer's site.
His casa is about 100 feet from a local escuela. We were sitting outside watching the kids in the playground. They were running around hitting each other with sticks and throwing rocks at each other. It went on for a very long time. There was no supervision.
When it finally came time to restart classes, the teacher tried to organize the kids into lines. It was an impossible task as the kids either ignored the lines, or tried to knock each other out of the lines.

That's when it occurred to me that I had seen this before - with Dominican adults trying to get on a transit bus or trying to buy things at a store. They have no respect for lines or waiting their turn either.
Then I had my epiphany: simple things like respect for your fellow man and waiting your turn is learned behavior.

Imagine a world where you don't know where you exist on the planet, and no one around you does either. Imagine a world where you don't know what is happening in the world, and no one around you does either. Imagine a world where you don't know how to read, and no one around you does either.
Now here's the important part - imagine a world where none of this is strange because this is the way it has always been and may always be.

How would this limit your view of what you can become? Where you can go? What you can accomplish?
I come from California (which to Dominicans is a suburb of Nueva York). I may as well have been dropped from outer space. After living here nearly a year it occurred to me that no one has bothered to ask me, "What is it like where you come from?"
Isn't that strange? Dominicans have no frame of reference to even ask that question.

Now circle back to my epiphany and ask yourself if this limited view of the world isn't also true for America, just different?

In the Dominican Republic there are almost no homeless people. Imagine that.
A country this poor and lacking in basic services can still take care of their own.
Oh sure, the homes may lack windows (and in the case of Haitian immigrants, floors) but nearly everyone has a roof over their heads. Family takes care of family, including extended family.
Now ask yourself what is so sick and twisted with Americans that we can't do this too?

In the Dominican Republic everyone knows their neighbors. Imagine that.
People here leave their front doors open all the time. You are expected to simply walk into other people's homes, unannounced, even if you don't know the person, and introduce yourself. No one gets excited about it.
Now ask yourself what is so wrong with Americans that we can't do this too?

In the Dominican Republic everyone wants to share what little they have. Imagine that.
If you stop in someone's casa they will inevitably offer you coffee. And if it is around meal time, they will insist they feed you. If you are on a bus (or GuaGua), and someone has some food (or moonshine), they will offer it to everyone.
Now ask yourself what is so wrong with Americans that we can't be like this too?

My point isn't that one culture is better than another. My point is that when it comes to societies problems that we classify as "human nature" is mostly just culture. It can be changed, if we wanted to change it.
What is needed is for more people to ask "why?" Why are things like the way they are? Why can't we change them for the better? And don't tell me it's because "people are like that" because I know that isn't true. People have been trained to be like that, and they can be untrained. Or better yet, they can untrain themselves if someone would just show them how.