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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Newcomers to La Laguna

Photo property of Ariana Salvo. Cannot be used without permission.
 I went to the Dominican Republic to help build a drinking water system, but what we were really building was community. Our team arrived in La Laguna, a village in the province of Duarte, in the early evening. The paved road that we had taken out of the city and through the valley eventually gave way to dirt roads riddled with potholes that our driver cursed at incessantly as we bounced through hole after hole, up and down hills and around bends, mile after mile. Eventually even the “good” dirt road turned into more of a track, bordered on both sides by fields of cocoa trees marbled with evening light. Every now and then we would pass a brightly coloured wooden house by the side of the road, and families would emerge to stare and wave as we passed by. I found myself wondering how often a busload of tourists came down this track. We finally pulled into a clearing in front of a home that stood in the shade of a large tree, and piled out into the dusty street, happy to stretch our limbs. After unloading our packs, we headed down the hill to enjoy a hot welcome meal at the home of Ramon Emilio, a community leader. Plates piled high with rice, meat and salad, we settled out in the garden in the golden evening sunlight to be briefed on village life, and what we should expect on our first day of volunteering. 

Arielle, the first female baseball player in La Laguna! Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sellers. May not be used without permission.   
Our team was divided up into small groups of two, three or four, and set off to meet our home stay families. My home stay “siblings” were Liz Hemstock, who is the Assistant Brand Manager for Green & Black’s Organic Chocolate, and Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson, who own a company called Stanton Media in London. After being divided up, we headed back up the hill to the house with the big tree, and found some local children and youth engaged in a baseball game. Baseball is the national sport in the Dominican Republic, and any little boy who can swing a bat has dreams of becoming a star. A few of us asked if we could join in. Myself and Arielle were the only women in the group, and I think perhaps the only women to ever play baseball in our little village of La Laguna. We had a grand match in the last light of the day on the corner of a dirt road next to the big tree. 

Meeting Teresa. Photo property of Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
As it started to get dark, Liz, Paul and Jim and I were led off down the road through the centre of the village to meet our host mom, Teresa. Teresa and her husband Jorge own the bodega, or village shop, in the centre of the village. A smile blooming across her face, she extended her hand and kissed us on the cheek, ordered some boys to carry our packs to the house next to hers, where we would be staying, and indicated that we were to follow her. 

Our house (turquoise and yellow). Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sellers. May not be used without permission.
Most of the homes in the area, Teresa’s being no exception, were made out of wood, with a cement foundation. Teresa introduced us to her two daughters Maria Isabel and Maite, and her mother in law Dona Polonia (Ms. Poland). Teresa’s house consisted of a small front porch, a long, narrow living room and dining area, two bedrooms, an open area in the back where we ate breakfast every day, and the kitchen, a detached room at the back of her home where she had a fridge, cooker, washing area, and storage for her dishes and cutlery. A path led off of the outdoor eating area along side the garden to the outhouse in the back. Unlike the toilet that we used for most of our visit, and that of the other houses, Teresa actually had a toilet that looked western. The only difference being that nothing happened when you attempted to flush. A small bucket is filled with water and poured down the toilet to flush it. Given the lack of a sewage system, I wondered where the waste went after it was “flushed” down the toilet, but I never got around to asking Teresa while we were there. Along the side of her house is Teresa’s garden. The garden is filled with blossoming flowers of all colours and perfumes. Teresa proudly showed us around her garden, explaining how much she loves flowers and beauty, and how happy it makes her to see the colours when everything is in bloom.

The house that we stayed in was across the “yard” from Teresa’s house. I say “yard” because there were no fences around the houses in La Laguna. All the houses in the area shared the grassy area between them. The home had originally belonged to Jorge’s mother, Polonia, but in her old age, she had moved in with Teresa, and so the house was only occupied by an older male relative who was rarely there. The guys took one bedroom, and Liz and myself occupied the other room. The rooms each had one double bed in them, and our room had a table to put some of our things on. Behind our house was an outdoor veranda area that was where we would sit and chat, write in our journals, or play with the local kids in the evenings after work. 

Playing with kids! Photo courtesy of Stanton Media. May not be used without permission.
Our shower house and outhouse were across the grass from our house, and were two rickety wooden structures. The shower room was a cement slab with a large barrel of water in it and a few smaller cans for dipping in and drawing out water for bathing with. The long drop toilet was a raised wooden seat over a pit. The shower house was often inhabited with geckos, whose golden eyes would shine at me through the darkness when I waited too late to bathe. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Grgurev. May not be used without permission
The toilet outhouse was a little harder to get used to as it was rarely not crawling with cockroaches and spiders the size of my palm. Our host mother laughed out loud every time we would shriek, and dismiss the insects with a wave of her hand: “no hace nada” she would say, smiling. Whether or not the large spiders stationed all over the walls of the bathroom were going to harm us or not, their presence on the side of the toilet and the walls, and the cockroaches that scurried around on the wooden floor of the structure meant that there was never a waiting line for the toilet. We were in and out of there in a flash! 

Long drop toilet! Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sellers. May not be used without permission.
After an evening meal with Teresa and her family, we all headed to bed. Liz and I had strung up our mosquito net above our bed, and secured it to the walls with duct tape. We tucked the edges under the mattress, and crawled into bed. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Grgurev. May not be used without permission.
That first night we had yet to figure out that leaving the overhead light on (we were one of the fortunate houses that had a battery that would charge up when the power was on, giving us power in our bedroom even when the rest of the village was dark) for extended periods of time before we went to bed was not the best idea. Every insect in the near vicinity, attracted by the light, crawled under the large gap between our door and the cement floor from the yard outside, and through the wooden slats of our window shutters (there were no glass windows). We also discovered that our walls had a number of resident spiders that would fold their bodies into cracks that were invisible to us, and then unfold and explore our bedroom at night while we were supposedly “sleeping.” 

A resident spider. Photo courtesy of Robert Grgurev. May not be used without permission.
Needless to say, between the insects, the snoring coming from the room next door, and trekking to the outhouse together in the middle of the night to brave the long-drop, we got very little sleep on our first night in La Laguna! One of the highlights of our indoor insect population was the presence of glow bugs that would hover over our bed, flickering on and off like stars burning themselves out as our lids got heavier and heavier, and finally, we fell asleep. 

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