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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. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From bean to bar: the story of Dominican Republic fair trade cacao

It is the middle of Earth Week -- the perfect incentive to continue sharing about my recent trip to build a gravity-fed water drinking water system in the Dominican Republic. Some exciting things have happened this week:

1. My article on voluntourism, with photographs from my trip, was published by Bootsnall.

2. My cousin gave birth to her second son (ok, so this happened while I was away, but I only found out about it since returning). 

3. I applied for two jobs, both of which would involve moving.

4. I made an excellent research connection for a novel that I am working on.

5. One of my best friends graduated from her CLS course, and was offered her first job as a lab tech (and we got to go out to breakfast at Orphan to celebrate ;-).

and 6. Free power yoga in the park has started up again for the season, which means that I have many Saturdays of doing yoga outside under a blue sky with an awesome group of people to look forward to.

Yoga in the park. All 130 of us that turned out for class this past Saturday.
It has been a good week so far. I have finally, just this week, stopped waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, with absolutely no idea where I am, and I am finally starting to have more time for personal reflection on the amazing journey that this recent trip with Green & Black's truly was.

In my last blog entry, our group had only just started our journey in the Dominican Republic. We were still fresh-faced, and pampered with flushing toilets and trickling showers.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
On day three of our trip we woke up early, loaded our packs onto the bus that was to drive us to our project site, and headed out of town. The bus wound its way through the tangled streets, dodging mopeds and pedestrians and braking to avoid stray dogs. We emerged onto a long street that ran parallel with the ocean. A festival from the weekend had left the entire strip littered with garbage that lined the gutter, was caught in the vegetation, and made the sidewalk useless. Crews of workers were out with garbage bags, tiny ants in a sea of waste. Slowly, slowly, the city gave way to suburbs, and suburbs to the fresh green of rice fields; bony cows grazing lazily in pastures; small ramshackle villages that sprung up here and there along the road.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
We crossed a wide open valley, a river, and finally pulled in through the gates of CONACADO's cocoa processing plant.

CONACADO, the cooperative that dries, processes and sells the fair trade cocoa that is bought by companies like Green & Black's (and which represents 30% of the Dominican Republic's cocoa export market), welcomed us with hot cups of thick cocoa made from a mixture of cocoa, milk, sugar, ground oats, cinnamon and cloves.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
 Our bellies full of sugar and chocolate, we sat down to a presentation about how cocoa is processed before being shipped out, and the various forms of end products that are sold (cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and solidified cocoa). 95% of the cocoa processed by CONACADO is exported. 5% is processed into cocoa powder and sold on the local market for drinking chocolate. 

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Cocoa is harvested locally by farm owners who usually hire extra help. The pods are removed from the trees and broken open using a machete. The beans are scooped out of the pods.

Photo by Robert Grgurev. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
There are usually between 40 and 50 beans in a pod. The beans are then either spread out to dry locally, which reduces the quality of cocoa and the price that the farmers can get for their beans when they arrive at the processing plant, or transported immediately to the processing facility moist, to be fermented. Dry beans are called Sanchez, and are considered inferior to Hispaniola beans, which are undergo a fermentation process before being dried that give them a distinctive colour, flavour and aroma. In the past most cocoa coming from the Dominican Republic was Sanchez cocoa. The reason for this was lack of access to processing facilities necessary to properly ferment and process Hispaniola beans. The island developed export markets to the US, where the Sanchez cocoa would be mixed with some higher quality cocoa, and made into low-quality chocolates that were sold for a low price. In general, American consumers have not traditionally been willing to pay higher prices for higher quality chocolate, so a stable market for Sanchez beans remains. Over time, as farmers have developed the processing facilities to produce Hispaniola beans, CONACADO has developed business relationships with European chocolate companies interested in high quality gourmet cocoa. Today there are fifteen countries recognized world-wide as gourmet cocoa producers. The Dominican Republic is one of these.

If a farmer wants his/her beans to be sold at the price for Hispaniola, the beans have to get from the pod to the processing facility in under six hours. This means a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and ready access to a vehicle to transport the beans down to the fermentation and drying facility as soon as they are bagged.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Once the beans arrive in the facility they are weighed and then unloaded into large fermentation bins, where the cocoa and sugar turn into alcohol, which in turn becomes acetic acid. The beans remain in the first bin for 48 hours. They are transferred to a second fermentation bin for another 24 hours, and finally to a third fermentation bin for another 24 hours before finally being sent to be dried.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission. 

The beans are spread out on mesh screens for 6-8 days, being agitated every hour to ensure even drying. The first few days the drying process progresses slowly, but the following days the drying process speeds up.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
Once the beans are sufficiently dry, they are moved to a drum that is heated using coconut husks. The temperature in the drum never exceeds 50 degrees, which guarantees that the beans are drying and not roasting. The beans dry in the drum for up to 62 hours. Overall, the drying process can take between 10 and 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity level.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Basilio, Ramon Emilio and I with two others at the cocoa drying facility. Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
From the drying facility, the cocoa is sent to the processing plant, where the beans are thoroughly cleaned and then toasted. Toasting is the most important part of the process in terms of determining the flavour of the cocoa. Toasting concentrates the aroma, cracks the bean open and takes the outside off, and separates the shell from the inside.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
The objective in the processing of cocoa at this point is to grind the cocoa into thick powder. The refining process makes sure that 99% of the cocoa is the right texture. If it it does not have the right texture, it is sent back through the refining process again until it meets the necessary characteristics to pass on to the next phase. The cocoa butter is separated from the cocoa by putting it under a tremendous amount of pressure. Cocoa butter is white in colour. Once the cocoa butter is filtered, it is put into 25kg boxes, which are in turn loaded into 20 tonne containers for export. The powder is put into 25 kg bags, which are loaded into 25 tonne boxes for export. Out of 100lbs of liquid cocoa, 45lbs becomes cocoa butter. Cocoa has to be cooled very slowly in cooling tunnels. This gradual cooling process is called tempering.

CONACADO does not currently produce its own chocolate bars. It sends cocoa off to companies like Green & Black's, who turn it into the delicious chocolate bars that I love to eat.

Photo by Ariana Salvo. May not be used without permission.
They are, however, developing their processing capacity, and hope to be able to make their own chocolate in the future, which will raise the price that they are able to get for their cocoa, and therefore the profits going back to individual communities. 

Photo by Stanton Media, 2011. May not be used without permission.

Friday, April 15, 2011

City of light and stone

My first full day in Santo Domingo began with me standing in the shower, attempting to rinse out the shampoo that I had lathered up all over my head, using the tiniest trickle of water that I have ever seen emerge from a shower head in my life. I emerged from the shower 45 minutes later and informed my roommate that we had no water pressure whatsoever. Amused, she waltzed into the bathroom and was back out in ten minutes flat, informing me with her “life is such a breeze when you have short pixie hair” tone that she had full water pressure for her entire shower. I later found out that my mistake had been trying to use the hot tap: “Who uses hot water in the Tropics, anyway?” Who indeed. 

 Our breakfast room was tucked into a corner that was connected to the living room/atrium by an open, arched doorway. Bars of light filtered in through the shutter slats that shielded the windows all along the front of the building from the bustle of the street outside. Settling into a chair, I enjoyed a cup of tea and a plate of fresh pineapple, melon, papaya and banana, along with a glass of freshly squeezed juice that tasted like a combination of every fresh tropical fruit available condensed into a single glass. It was divine. People filtered in slowly, and I got to connect the names I had been seeing in emails and on Facebook for the past few months with actual faces and personalities. Liz, who would later turn out to be my roommate during our home stay in La Laguna, was one of three Green & Black’s employees who were on the trip with us. Tall and slight, with short blond hair, and playful bright blue eyes, she had a fun-loving and bubbly personality that would keep the tone light-hearted later on in the trip when we were feeling tired or sore from digging. Kate, also from Green & Black’s in London, struck me immediately as generous and thoughtful. And Robert, Green & Black’s counterpart from New York City, was reserved, with a dry sense of humour that grew on me as the trip progressed. Apart from Leo, Arielle and myself, the other two participants from the U.S. were Nicole, a Master’s student from Washington, D.C., and Khatundi, an activist involved in empowering young girls in Kenya (through the Yayaz project), currently living in North Carolina. Our British counterparts were Max, who has built houses in Africa, been involved in sea turtle nesting restoration work in Latin America, and recently finished his ESL certificate; Bruno, who was our photography expert, and took a good many 360 degree photos that I cannot wait to see; Jamie, whose awesome sense of humour and seemingly never ending good spirit kept us all uplifted throughout the trip; Oli, who is originally German, but is studying in Manchester, and has more energy than almost anyone else I know (with the exception of Arielle, who has more energy than I had previously imagined was possible); and Elizabeth, who is a fellow blogger, and anthropology student, who did interviews with many of the families in the communities we were working in while we were in the Dominican Republic. 

In addition to the Green & Black’s crew and the Ambassadors, we had Lucie Phipps, a PR representative for Phipps (which, I am told, is just a coincidence), and our two photographers/film crew, Jim and Paul a.k.a. the Stanton boys (because their media company is called Stanton Media) to the rest of the group, or as brother Jim and brother Paul to myself and Liz (because we stayed with the same host family while on our trip). We also had Pedro as our Raleigh expedition leader, who is Argentinian, has lived most of his life in the UK, and is currently a Raleigh nomad. And in the last few days of our expedition, Teresa joined us from Raleigh in the UK, to complete our team. 

We spent that first day getting to know each other, learning about Raleigh, Green & Black’s, and CONACADO, the cooperative that supplies Green & Black’s with organic cocoa. We also managed to fit in a late afternoon walking tour of part of Santo Domingo, passing by a number of historic sites that Julian gave us some background information on. Santo Domingo by day is all light and stone. Light penetrates every crack and sharpens the grain in every stone. Much of the old city is cobbled, and, it being a Sunday, there were hundreds of people out celebrating the anniversary of the construction of their most famous cathedral. We wandered up and down streets in a daze, snapping photographs and taking it all in. Cars that sped down the narrow streets. The photographs of the Mirabal sisters mounted on the side of a building. Families out for their Sunday stroll in their best clothes. Outdoor cafes. Tiny strips of shade alongside buildings and under the outstretched limbs of the city’s few flamboyantly blossoming trees. Statues covered in pigeons. Tanks and cannons left abandoned in fields as if someone hit the pause key mid-battle, and then forgot to come back and finish the scene. The awareness that we were being watched on every side. That we were camera-snapping, lobster-shouldered tourists who stuck out like snow on a pile of coal. 


In the evening, wearing our “smart clothes,” we headed out to join the locals in one of the many outdoor bars scattered all over the city. It was warm but breezy. The moist air smelled slightly salty, laced with an odd assortment of floral and spicy perfumes and aftershave. In the kinder evening light we looked sun-kissed instead of blatantly sunburned. And everyone was feeling relaxed and full of expectation for heading out to our project site the next day. It was a lovely night filled with stories and laughter, and when we lazily made our way back to our rooms later that night, passing mangy stray dogs, piles of garbage and late night coffee shops, those of us who had been fortunate enough to not be sharing rooms with snorers collapsed straight into a deep sleep. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First taste of Santo Domingo

The courtyard outside my hotel room in Santo Domingo

It has been an incredible last couple of weeks. So incredible that I am not entirely sure where to start. I think the best way is to do it in a series of short posts so that you get a taste of the richness of colour, culture, hard work, dust, humidity, heat…of the sweetness of the cacao and fresh pineapple and bananas. Of the sound of laughter and music.

I arrived in Santo Domingo on March 26th at 9.30pm. It was a hot, humid night. The air was so heavy with moisture that it left a thin layer all over my skin and hair. Myself, Leo and Arielle were met at the airport by Raleigh International’s Costa Rican Country Director, Julian, and our medic for the trip, Carolyn. Leo was coming from southern California. I was coming from northern California, and Arielle was coming from New Hampshire. Julian and Carolyn ushered us out of the airport into the hot night. The smell of burning rubbish was pungent, and the air throbbed with loud music on every corner. Neon lights. Street vendors. Cars and buses and motorcycles darting every which-way. The raw smell of the ocean wafting in the open car window told me that we must be very close to the shore even though the sounds of rubber on asphalt, horns beeping, and music rhythmically pumping away obliterated the soft push and pull of waves up and down the beach.

We exited the “highway,” and the road followed the curve of the harbour, florescent lights flooding the bay, a giant cruise ship so enormous that made me feel like I had stepped into a chapter of Gulliver’s travels loomed, a solid white wall, above us. To the one side was the harbour. To the other, the thick, impenetrable wall of the old city of Santo Domingo. We drove through a gate, winding our way through narrow streets, between mopeds and parked cars, swerving to avoid women teetering in heels, their bosoms blossoming full and ripe out of low-scooped necklines. The small of cigarette smoke curled in through the window. Horns. As the car slowed in traffic, I caught glimpses of bar after bar, their ornate doors thrown open to the night, warm dim glow of light flooding out onto the cracked sidewalk. Inside they looked like caves filled with bare limbs. Limbs flopped into chairs around tables, hanging limply over the backs of chairs, around the dark bare shoulders of sweet smelling women. Limbs dancing rhythmically in and out of shadows that climbed the stone walls, then fell, sliding smoothly across the cool stone floors.

Just when I thought we would never arrive, the car pulled up outside the Beaterio. A refurbished Monastery, our hotel reminded me of something I might have expected to find in Barcelona. Stepping through a thick wooden door, I entered a room bathed in warm yellowish light. A number of the other participants were lounging around in a living-room type atrium. After introductions, we were ushered down a hallway into the kitchen. I pulled my heavy hiking boots off, my feet loving the cool rough stone floors. Bunches of ripe bananas hung from the ceiling. A platter of freshly cut pineapple and melon was sitting on the counter. Arielle, Leo and I, ravenous after a long day of travel, dug in – sweet pineapple juice dripping down our chins. We were all tired and a bit giddy, but also excited for what lay ahead.

Arielle and I were given the last room on the ground floor, which opened up onto a courtyard lush with palms and vines climbing up to the second story. Our bedroom, complete with two four poster beds, felt like a fairytale. Lying in bed, the blades of the ceiling fan spinning endlessly above us, agitating the heavy air around us, we talked about our lives back home. Our work. Our friendships. Relationships. We also talked about the day ahead. Exploring Santo Domingo. Getting to know everyone in the group better. I do not remember falling asleep. Just being woken by the sound of morning in the capital – the clatter of plates, laughter, and the inability to keep myself from leaping out of bed, even after only a few short hours of sleep.