Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sin Agua

I woke up in the middle of the night. Something was different.
It wasn't different in the same way last week was different - when I felt a 3-inch long cockroach crawling across my neck (lesson learned: ALWAYS tuck in your mosquito net). No, this time it was different because it was the sound of running water.

It had been 10 days since I had running water. So when water started coming out of the faucet I jumped out of bed, ran to the bathroom and opened the taps wide. I was suddenly wide awake and happy beyond measure.
The first thing I did was fill the back of the toilet with water and flushed it. The smell improved immediately. I then did it again, even though it no longer needed it. Then I did it a third time just because I was getting giddy.

I then emptied every bucket of water in the house and cleaned the buckets thoroughly before filling them with fresh water. Next came the counters in the kitchen and bathroom, and finally the floors of the apartment. It was 3 a.m. and I had never enjoyed cleaning so much in my life. It's amazing how the little things in life can suddenly mean so much when you don't have them for a while. Getting some perspective on life was one of the primary reasons I joined the Peace Corps.

Now if I only had some electricity...

When I talk to my friends and family in the States, they always ask me the same thing: "How do you manage without running water?"
Well, for starters, you catch rainwater. Fortunately it is the rainy season here in the Dominican Republic, so it rains about every other day. Everyone here has large buckets and barrels in their homes. When it starts raining, people run out of their homes, buckets in hand, to whatever storm-drain is available. The only problem is that the rain also washes off whatever filth was on top of the building, so you usually end up with a bunch of clean water and a layer of dirt in the bottom.

You don't drink this water. It's for bathing and cleaning only, just like whatever comes out of the tap. You buy bottled water to drink because the tap water can't be trusted.
This is typical for 3rd world countries. Undependable water is a way of life for 3/4 of the people on this planet.

It would probably surprise a lot of people in the Unites States that you can get by without running water for several days without any real problems. It would probably also surprise people in the United States that civilisation doesn't end when the power goes out. You simply have to spend more time talking to your family and neighbours.
People in the 1st world have convinced themselves that they absolutely must have access to their electronic toys all the time or something terrible will happen. It's a false scenario. Those electronic toys are separating us from what really matters in life.

Before I joined the Peace Corps I used to hear the term "3rd World Hell Hole". As if anyone not living in the 1st world was living a life of absolute misery.
The thing I discovered is that people in poorer, more isolated nations are slightly happier than people in America. They don't worry about the news because there is no power for the TV most of the time. They don't worry about crime because they know all their neighbours. They don't worry about protecting their "stuff" because they have little worth stealing.

One of the most surprising things I discovered when I got to the Dominican Republic was the almost complete lack of homeless people. Many of the houses may be shacks, but almost no one sleeps without a roof over their heads, and very few go hungry. Family and friends look out for each other.
Why is this true in a 3rd world nation, but not in a the United States? Well, everyone here talks to their family and friends when the power goes out (which is every day). So is it a blessing or a burden to have electricity all the time? Is it a blessing or a burden to have so much junk that you need to rent storage to put it all somewhere?

It really is an amazing concept to consider - that stuff does not constitute real wealth, and does not lead to happiness.
Sure the people of the D.R. want stuff. Sure they envy what they see on American TV shows, but then so do Americans. Maybe there is more value in the fantasy than in the reality.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dominican Roulette

I was sitting in the back of a Daihatsu pickup truck with Damian, another Peace Corps volunteer, when I realized the absurdity of my situation.
We were coming back from spending the night in Rio Limpio, a beautiful mountain community with spectacular views. However, there was only one road and it wasn't paved. The recent rains had created more washouts and ravines than road. Even at 15 kmh we were getting tossed around the back of the truck like rag dolls. My wrist was sprained from a failed attempt at trying to hold onto the side of the truck. I had bruises all over my back and arms, and we had another 30 minutes to go before we reached the main road.
But that wasn't the crazy part.

There was another 10 Dominicans jammed into the back of that truck. Shortly before leaving Rio Limpio one of them had bought a couple bottles of claren, Haitian moonshine, and was passing it around. It was 11am and everyone was already drunk.
Two of the Dominicans were from the national guard. If you've never been to the Dominican Republic then you wouldn't know that national guardsmen, and even private security, walk around with shotguns loaded and not holstered. One of of the guardsmen had laid the shotgun on the bed of the truck so that he could text a message on his cell. Amazingly he seemed to be nodding off while he was doing this. Meanwhile the loaded shotgun was bouncing around, periodically pointing at everyone in the truck. Damian called it "Dominican Roulette". No one seemed to care about the shotgun but us.

It was at this point that Damian turned to me and said with a straight face, "I just realised that we aren't wearing seat belts." That's when the absurdity of the situation hit me and I started howling with laughter. Unfortunately I let go of the truck and the next bounce threw me against the side of it, nearly knocking the wind out of me.

The trip to Rio Limpio was part of an Ecoclub trip. There was supposed to be charlas about deforestation, but the moment we got there the Dominicans broke out a set of dominoes and a couple bottles of Brugal. Preventing deforestation would have to wait for another day.
That night the Dominicans broke out some huge, hand drums and played some music that I had not heard in the four months that I have been here. It had unmistakable African roots, and must have been some sort of blending of Haitian and Dominican cultures. Combined with some traditional dancing that wasn't barchata or merengue, it was easily the best night of music I had heard to date.

Later on, I was talking to one of the locals who told me that someone in the village had been arrested for "stopping the rain". I had to ask him to tell that to me several times before I realised that I had heard it right. He also mentioned a woman getting arrested for "flying and eating children."

On the way back we stopped to pick up a couple bolas (i.e. hitchhiker). It was an old man, so old that he had to be physically lifted in and out of the truck, and a young boy carrying a chicken. They didn't appear to be related.
Despite a general atmosphere of intoxication, we stopped the truck at a colmado and bought some food for our hitchhikers and waited for them to eat. I don't think they had eaten in a few days.