Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peace, Life, and Cholera

I was riding in the back of a pickup truck two days ago when it occurred to me that things weren't all that bad.

It's costs about 100 pesos, and about 45 minutes of time, for the GuaGua ride from Loma de Cabrera to my little mountain pueblo. Since gas costs so much in the Dominican Republic, drivers typically stop their engines at the tops of hills and roll to the bottom before starting the engine again. Even motorcycles do this.
I was about 20 minutes outside of Loma when the GuaGua driver did this. The sudden silence of riding in an open cab on an empty road, while rolling through a wet cloud in the mountains, forced me to recognize the beauty of the moment. The pine trees were mixed with palm and mango trees. None of the other Dominicans in the back of the truck with me said a word. None of us wanted to disturb the moment.

I've been at my permanent site, about 20 minutes from the Haitian border, for about two weeks now. I feel safer here than any other place in the Dominican Republic. For example, the other night the electricity gave out, like it does at some point every day.
In America this would be a BIG PROBLEM. People would complain about it for weeks later. They would ask politicians "what are you doing about it?" Criminals would take advantage of the situation.
However, in my pueblo people went for walks with flashlights and talked to their neighbors. It was no big deal. When you don't have electricity then you also don't have distractions, thus you wind up getting to know the people in your community.

For instance, right now I'm watching some teenage kids playing basketball in the street, all wearing sandals. They nailed together a basketball hoop out of wood and a metal hoop, and planted it alongside the road. Then drew the outlines of a court in chalk. When someone rides through on a pack mule the game doesn't stop. They just play around the mule and its rider.
It's hard to tell if their are teams. It appears to be every man for himself.

Everyone goes out of their way to be friendly here.
If you stop by someone's house they will inevitably offer you cafe and food. Even the poorest people in this country want to share their food with you, and they will be honestly hurt if you don't eat more than your fill.
For instance, one of my neighbors invited me and a couple friends in for dinner last week. Well, I had already eaten dinner at another house so I wasn't really hungry. Nevertheless, completely turning down food was not an option. I was going to eat whether I wanted to or not.
As you can imagine, I tried to get by eating small portions. The dona of the house, when she saw me not eating much, told me that, "If you do not get rid of your shame I will hit you." The following day she cleaned my apartment from top to bottom without my asking, or even suggesting my house was dirty, because men in this country aren't supposed know much about stuff like that.
The Dominican's obsession with food is a subject in itself. No conversation is complete unless it include the topic of food. Yet, you would think that a people so obsessed with food would not cook such bland meals. Everything is rice, beans, and chicken with a side of fruit. Spices are kept to a minimum.

On a darker note, I talked with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer today.
He's stationed about 60 kilometers south of me, on the other side of the mountains. He told me about a truck ride he had just the other day. An old man was helped into the back of the pickup with him. The next day the old man had died of cholera.
Cholera is getting bad in the "dirty south" of the country, where Haitian immigration is most noticeable. Three days before I had talked to a different PCV also stationed in the south. She said that the hospital in her pueblo was putting tents outside for cholera patients because they had run out of room indoors.

So today I did a search for news stories about cholera in the D.R. They weren't hard to find:
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (AP) - Health officials in the Dominican Republic are reporting hundreds of new cases of cholera as the outbreak spreads through most of the country.
The number of new cases reported is up about 50 percent since the middle of May.
Hospitals in the capital Santo Domingo are overflowing with people presenting symptoms of cholera and health centres are fast running out of room.
The director of a hospitals on the outskirts of Santo Domingo said that just treating the infection won't be enough to contain the outbreak and that people must "follow the measures set up by the ministry".
In the capital, everything points to the polluted Soco river, where mountains of rubbish line up its banks, as the epicentre of the cholera outbreak.
The Dominican Republic Minister of Health agreed that the river may be the source but also said that the start of the rainy season could also be the cause of the dramatic increase in the cholera cases.
I've found other news articles about people dying in San Cristóbal and San Pedro de Macorís. I've so far avoided telling my family about the cholera problem. I'm afraid that they would freak. I feel a little guilty about keeping this information from them. My friend that is stationed south of me posted a story about this on Facebook and his family in the United States were unanimous in telling him that 'it was time to come home'.
So far there is no cholera in these mountains that I am aware of. The hospital in town is quiet and the doctor I know doesn't seem worried about anything. But if rainy season really does make it worse, then I wonder if any place will be safe.