Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Grasshopper Culture

A retiring Peace Corps doctor (that reminded me a lot of Doctor Ruth) told me yesterday that the Dominican Republic was "grasshopperland". She was referring to Asop's Fable about the ant and the grasshopper.
This is the land of "manana manana". The people here live for the day and don't do a lot of thinking about tomorrow.

This thinking extends to the government, which likes to build things but never bothers to maintain it. A good example of this is the brand-spanking new subway in Santo Domingo that puts most subway systems in the United States to shame. Meanwhile the roads are falling apart to such a degree that many are practically impassible without an SUV. In fact, some roads in my Pantoja neighborhood are even a danger to pedestrians.

It doesn't stop there. Running water is spotty at best in almost the entire country, but walk down almost any road and you'll eventually run across water from a broken water-main leaking to the surface.
I've been told there is a lot of machismo involved in building something and putting your name on it, but none in fixing it when it breaks. This is why most of the money-making businesses in the D.R. are owned by foreigners.

You can see this thinking manifested, tragically, in the educational system.

The Dominican Republic constitution requires the government to spend 4% of GDP on the educational system. The government currently spends about 2%, and even that is mostly directed at the small university system, leaving the primary school system impoverished. The D.R. educational system ranks nearly last in every category in the world.
This means that the teachers have to purchase classroom supplies...when they get paid, which isn't often. The morale of public school teachers is abysmal.

One thing there isn't a lack of is computer labs. You can find them in the most remote campos where electricity is infrequent. Often NGO's will dump thousands of dollars in expensive equipment on the community with no training or instructions. The computers will find their way to some dusty office and sit there.
I was at one of these sites last week. A veteran PCV and myself went to set up the lab. We discovered that it had been running for two years. Huge framed pictures of the graduating classes graced the walls.
While rebuilding the computers and installing programs the local professor of this computer lab sat down to talk to us. After trying to convince us to attend his church and failing, he made a comment that I found very revealing. He said, "I would like to learn how to install a program."

It makes a person wonder what exactly he had been teaching all these kids for the last two years.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Culture of the GuaGua's

My first real culture shock in the Dominican Republic came when I saw the young mother hand her baby to a perfect stranger. It was a "You're no longer in Kansas" moment.

Public transit in Santo Domingo is not for the faint of heart.

The lowest level of public transit is the "motocoach". It's simply a motorcycle, and people ride on the back. When I say people, I mean multiple people. It's not unusual to see three people riding a motorcycle at once, and four is not unheard of.

The second lowest level of public transit are the "carro publicos", what you might call Gypsy Cabs in New York City.
Imagine a mid-90s Honda Civic or Toyota Carrola. It's side mirrors are missing, probably from sideswiping other cars. The interior door handles are broken, so if you need to get out of the car you have to reach through the window and use the door handle on the outside.
The backseat can comfortably handle two people, three adults can be wedged in, but every single one of them will insist on jamming four adults in, plus two more adults in the front, passenger seat. Can't fit the fourth person in the back seat? Then you'll have to pay for two people.
Of course "paying for two" means it will cost you about $1.40 rather than the normal $0.70 for a 2 kilometer ride.

The next level up in the public transit hierarchy is the GuaGua.
These are usually converted tourist buses, although they can be as large as full buses, or as small as a minivan. Their routes, stops, and schedules can vary depending on conditions and the temperament of the driver. The names of the GuaGua's (for instance, the 10-B bus) have no logical order.
The most notable feature of the GuaGua is the comprador. He literally hangs out of an open side door and yells at people standing on the sidewalk that there is room available on the GuaGua. He slaps the cab with his hand to tell the driver to stop for a customer. Often he jumps off the GuaGua while still moving in heavy traffic to help a customer on. He's also the one who collects the money.
Like the carro publico, they can always squeeze in one more person. If there are a row of seats - two on one side and one on the other - they have installed a folding seat that drops into the walking corridor between the seats. Think that's enough? Of course not! The next person on will sit, half-on, half-off of the folding seat and one of the other seats.
Hope you don't mind being jammed against strangers.

Not only are there no seat belt laws, there's no seat belts. There also doesn't seem to be any concern to drinking alcohol while driving. I've seen liter bottles of beer being drank and passed between motorcycles driving on crowded streets.
If that sounds a little crazy, then you should see the sober ones drive. Mad Max has nothing on these people. There are no lanes on the highways and streets. The lines in the road are simply ignored. The most aggressive driver is rewarded by being first.

I couldn't help but laugh when I saw one driver of a carro publico I was in reach out the window to "shove" away another car that came too close.
Another time a blaring horn made me notice that a GuaGua was getting too close to the GuaGua I was in. Then I realized that a carro publico had managed to get between the two GuaGua's and was trying to pass them.

And speaking of blaring horns, the traffic can be deafening. It's not just the blaring horns. All the engines sound as if they are about to explode. If there are mufflers on the motorcycles then none of them work.
And don't get me started about the exhaust. Having the window open on public transit is bad for your health. My friend said it best when he told me, "When I get back to the United States, if I hear someone try to tell me about air quality I'm going to slap them."

And yet the most culturally significant event that happened to me had nothing to do with this craziness.
It was right around 5pm on a weekday. The GuaGua was packed to the gills, as usual. I was trapped far in the back. One young mother was waiting on a corner with her baby in her arms. The comprador slapped on the side of the bus to get it to stop and he jumped off while it was still slowing down.
I couldn't hear what was said, but it was obvious that she was tired from a long day. Her shoulders sagged when she looked at the GuaGua and saw that there were no seats. Then something that I didn't expect happened.
The comprador said something and she handed him her baby. He took the baby onto the GuaGua, as she followed. He then handed the baby to another woman who was already seated. The women obviously did not know each other. The young mother looked at the woman and simply said, "gracias". Nothing more.
She handed her precious baby to a stranger, who handed it to another stranger, and was never concerned with its safety its enough to even look at the baby again until a seat opened up.

No one was surprised except me. No one commented. This was simply part of what was expected in the culture.
There is a lesson about community to be learned here.

[note: These are all my opinions alone and do not in any way reflect on the Peace Corps.]