July 1, 2001 - Personal Web Site: Observations from beneath the Mosquito Net by Dominican Republic RPCV Tim Rice
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July 1, 2001 - Personal Web Site: Observations from beneath the Mosquito Net by Dominican Republic RPCV Tim Rice
Observations from beneath the Mosquito Net by Dominican Republic RPCV Tim Rice
Observations from beneath the Mosquito Net by Dominican Republic RPCV Tim Rice
Observaciones por debajo del mosquitero
Observations from beneath the Mosquito Net
2. What's the rule?
4. Para conocer una mariposa
(On the Life of a Butterfly)--it's in English!
5. Man vs. Nature: A Comedy
6. Me faltan ojos para ver
(I Lack Eyes Enough to See)--it's in English, too!
7. Ninez (Childhood)--no worries, English!
As a volunteer I had a lot of time to think. I would often do so while laying on my bed, staring up through my mosquito net at the spider webs, rafters, and corrugated tin roof above me. Often enough, I would put my thoughts down as little stories. These are a few.
Now, Iíve always been afraid of kids. No, really, theyíre a scary thing for me.
Do you remember being a kid? What does a kid think? How does one feel? Why is he staring at me? Adults are easy in comparison: there are liars, cheats, salsa-givers, the one who wants to marry my sister; theyíre all working on some goofy level that if Iím perceptive enough I can figure out.
But a kid, a kidís a different story. They donít communicate, at least not verbally, and thatís the catch. This one, he cried hysterically the first day he saw me. His worst nightmare (?): a stranger come to live with him. I think he cried for an hour. So I lived with this kid for a month; heís not the reason I left, and I see him still on a daily basis. I think Iíve come to understand whatís behind the way he acts.
But, beyond the eyes of this child, whatís inside there? He isnít a doll whose string you pull to hear his recorded phrases. Heís an intelligent and curious being whose language I donít understand. The curiosity of this little guy matched mine; barriers broke down (after his hysterical crying) and he learned my name. I taught him to like to bathe; he taught me to skewer an orange on a rusty piece of wire. No longer does he scrunch up his face at my approach, not so much as his eyes begin to glitter, his mouth widens to a smile, calling my name he spreads his arms wide for our little abrazitoónot so much what I taught him, but what he taught me.
"salsa-givers": "dar salsa" or to kiss up.
"abrazito": "abrazo" or hug. "-ito" a diminutive or indicates affection.
Whatís the rule?
Iím sitting here at my desk thinking I want to write. From my neighborís house, over the "Santamaríamadrededios" I hear an adult yell, a loud smack, and a child scream. Not at all a rare occurrence, Iíve got something to write about.
Now, they arenít my kids and I donít live with them to know just how bad or good the little things really are. The truth of my observations is that I see them running around, half-dressed or undressed, without a coherent por qué to their existence. Theyíre kids, and they are playing. Theyíre always playing; life is still a game. I understand that, and they do too. But their parents see it another way.
Sometimes I watch themópassively, never very openly. One day, Iím on my back step shaving: a ponchera between my legs, a caldera of hot water at my side; my face is nearly covered with white stuff, and my hand holds a device Iím sure sheís never seen before. Two year-old Emeli is watching me, and I her. Parent: "Intrusa!" SMACK! Now, lifeís a game, sheís curious, so she watches. Whatís the rule here? Hereís another one: itís rained; sheís a kid, so she playsónot so much in the mud but it amounts to that. "Bicha de m...!" SMACK! And another rule.
Another scream and another rule; daily I count them and I wonder how many hundreds of rules there must be in the simple lives of these kids. Hating my all-to-frequent role as accomplice, I try not to think of the methods being used to teach the rules; I think of Emeliís example: curiosity, watch, yell, SMACK; the American didnít know the rule.
Notes--What's the Rule
"Santamaríamadrededios": "Santa María Madre de Dios" or "Holy Mary Mother of God" it is the beginning of the Hail Mary in Spanish. The family in questions listens to the daily broadcast of mass, not so much participating as tuning in.
"Por qué": why; interrogative. "without a coherent por qué" or without a coherent reason.
"ponchera": a plastic bassinet about a foot and a half in diameter, 4 inches deep.
"caldera": a pot used for cooking.
"Intrusa!": Nosey. Not a good thing in a child.
"Bicha de m...": "Little 'brat'!"
I tend to think that most of us, for some time in our service, have a type of insecurity complex about work.
Just the other day in a carro, I was talking with a visiting friend of a neighboring Volunteer. It was your typical run-down Datsun with plastic upholstering, no muffler, loose steering and a radio screaming music into the back seat I occupied. We were planning for the next day; the chofer, a buddy, suggested weíall go sightseeing. The friend, she asked me if I had to work the next day.
I donít know if it was the "back-in-the-US" way she said it, or the serious way in which she meant it, or the rather shocking realization that she really had no idea what I do. Left with the dilemma, How to explain my work in one sentence, I chuckled nervously and my responseó"Uh, no"óleft a little to be desired.
Having come from an 8 to 5 job, having played the serious student game at college, and having been raised in the Puritan work ethic Midwest, I once had a dread of days unfilled with activities. And I must admit, the days of sleeping late, doing domestic chores when not needed, and gossiping while watching the kids and chickens play did give me painsófor a while.
I often say that life is work: doing things the Dominican wayóagainst our cultural instinctsówe are learning about our neighbors; things done the American way, trying for others, letís us teach about ourselves. Not much of a job description, this can happily be padded now by what would appear more like "work": meetings, commissions, activities, and the like.
Perhaps Iím lucky that the people in my campo donít call me a vago; it has helped me come rather easily to accept such a free and open job description. My own boss, I have luck, dedication, creativity, and a smattering of willing Dominicans on my side when finding things to do. So I keep my hands in a bunch of pies, and the time slips by with me feeling like Iím working. But, back to the question, am I working tomorrow? Uh, yeah, but I prefer not to explain it!
Para conocer una mariposa
As I cram into the run-down Datsun, I think to myself "Who is gonna drive this thing, me or the chofer?" Weíre both in the driverís seat, you see. To keep my mind from my apparent death wish, I take an added interest in my surroundings: a favorite bachata coming from a nice sounding set of speakers, the Pollo Vegano plant with huge inflated beer can awaiting this afternoonís party, the two girls with water cans on their heads trying to cross what will soon become a two lane divided highway. My protective reverie is broken as the youngest begins to cross in front of our car: the horn blares, brakes screech and we lurch nearly into the windshield. Iím surprised I even saw the near-accident coming, as my detachment had taken me far away.
I was thinking of Salcedo in the 1950s; I had just read In the time of the Butterflies. Of course my information isnít very accurate, and Iím sure my imagination has long since gone out of control. In my mind I picture the country at this time perpetually covered with the dark clouds of a threatening Midwestern thunderstorm. My mind doesnít accept that the physical features of the country havenít changed: the mangoes were juicy, the plants green, the sky a brilliant blue, and the arcoiris beautiful on the sunshiny yet rainy days. It isnít nature that has changed; itís what we do to it that has.
The two 60 year-old gentlemen fit comfortably in the single seat to my right; they are thin with years of hardship in the rice fields. These two men are just as much a testimony to the past as are the drawings of the Taínos or the cities of the lowland Maya. The difference is that I can see and touch the leftovers from those ages. Within these men, as part of them, lie the remnants of an age that is not so long past. Yet I cannot touch them, I cannot see them; but their existence is as sure as that of my parents. The brutality and outrageousness of this time, the sick distortion of human relations piques my curiosity: what did it do to the people?
This legacy to me takes on an almost physical reality; surely these people carry the baggage forced upon them during those times. I see it almost as a badge, or a tattoo on the underside of their forearm. The more I think about it, the more real it becomes, but the more elusive as well. I know it exists, but I cannot find its traces in more than a hushed tone, or a tentative glance over the shoulder.
Iíve had two close encounters with this shadowy legacy: a young man began to publish a biweekly newspaper for the nearby municipio. After two publications he received a visit from the local Policía; although he had stayed well away from touchy topics, it seems he lacked a license or two. Tracking him down to submit an article, I asked directions of a man at a garage. When he realized the house I was looking for was that of the newspaper, he quietly took me aside and asked my name and my business. The penetrating gaze, lowered voice, and suspicious tone transported us to a solitary space amidst the busy street. "Tenemos que cuidarlo, tu sabes." Nor was the young man too pleased to see a stranger at his door.
The second ghostly encounter was none too elaborate: I took the direct approach with a friend whose confidence I share. He answered me with monosyllables and played with the radio; it didnít take too much to see I was running into a wall.
Man versus Nature: A Comedy
Today, a day pleasantly overcast with intermittent, sunny showers, while standing near my front door and chatting with a friend, I suddenly feel ten prickling needles of pain lance my two bare feet. Looking down, I notice I am being overrun by biting black ants!
I quickly kill the offenders, and run to put on shoes and socks. In the other room, which is typically visited by these miniscule adventurers, I am greatly upset to find that I have lost half my house to an invading army!
My immediate, rational response is: "I must kill them." Not knowing much about ants, I go in search of a neighbor. Their responses are quite helpful: "Buy some Ñagara." Where can I get it? "Monday at the Almacén." But donít you understand? Iím losing a war; I canít enter my house without having an army of angry ants chewing at my legs! My distress is apparent. You see, I am a human; I refuse to be run out of my house by ANTS! (Are elephants really afraid of mice?)
I finally get some immediate help: "Take these leaves and scatter them among the ants." I do this, but it is not enough. I do not feel as if I have struck the death blow to the invading horde. Ant poison; I need ant poison. And off I go in search of it. After traveling some two kilometers and stopping at various houses--"Ants, I say, THOUSANDS of them!--I acquire a few pinches of the holy powder with which I may exorcise this diminutive demon from my house.
As the thunder rolls along and fresh clouds are sweeping in, I race back home: "I lost the first battle but I will win the war!" Entering, I arm myself with pinches of white powder and seek out the enemy--now numbering only in the dozens. What was once occupied by the enemy is now dusted with fine white death. "Go get Ďem, boys!"
Having become sweaty from the exertion and stress of battle, I quickly bathe: there is a promised jugo awaiting my triumphant return to the arms dealersí house. Freshly bathed and clothed I hear the tentative rapping of the rain as it falls on my tin roof. "Itís the rain," Ramón had said. I stop to think: were they the leaves that routed my foe? Or was it the holy, man-made powder in which I put so much trust? Or was it simply the long awaited, ant-foreshadowed rain that brought us back from the brink of defeat in the First Great Ant War?
Me faltan ojos para ver
I lack eyes enough to see it all
Having recently completed my 14th month of service, I decided to look back at these and ask, "Have I accomplished anything?" To answer this question didn't cause me as much dread as I feared it would a year ago as I sat on my doña's porch watching the people walk by. At that point I was still rebelling against the idea that my work would be done slowly and be measured by how many houses I frequented and how many people I could consider friends. At this time I measured "work" by the meetings I attended, the projects proposed, the people contacted, and the things I "did." We got a few things done: a large, well attended community meeting, the camino got somewhat repaired; but that house the big bad wolf blew down: it wasn't built on a solid foundation of supportive personal relations.
In July I had a major success--one of the brick-built kind. Three of my favorite señoras--not quite doñas but married with children--and I decided to do a field trip. We had regular meetings; we shared the labor; we talked openly about how to proceed and what to include; we recruited people outside the group to support our work. Although the big bad wolf blew and blew, he only got the kitchen out back, and the main edifice of our accomplishment remains to this day: on a rainy day in summer 100 children, parents, and teachers piled into a bus built for 75. Prepared with jugo, galletas, and mentas we braved the four hour trip--one way--and visited the zoo, aquarium, and that testament to blind orgullo, the Faro a Colón. Crammed standing in the bus while the concrete buildings of KM 14 flew by, I noticed seated quietly at my side little Angélica--so little she could not see past her sisters to the window. My payment for holding her steady as she stood on the seat--her large eyes wide watching as the strange sites of the capital passed by--I received the other day: a sweet abrazito as she left the school yard.
These are the big things--big like 75 pre- and teens sitting and responding, quietly and calmly, as we discussed why it was they spent their nights in an overcrowded funeraria receiving class. Big as in seeing my campo ladies fajadas at their newly purchased sewing machine; as big as seeing the tension and doubt in Emilia's face and demeanor dissolve as she realized "Yes, I have a job; I can do it, and I will do it well." But mental health is not only sustained by the big things; what keeps winding my spring is being able to change clothes with my front door open (the kids learned to knock), that a mean look at Emeli will send her scampering for her calizos, Chepe coming to re-view El Sandwich más grande del mundo and then putting it back where it belongs, burn-scarred Euri clutching my shoulder as the anesthetic wore off and saying, "Tomás, necesito ayuda, no te me vayas!" And cargando Judy as his spring slowly winds down.
These are the things that keep me going; these are some of my accomplishments, and perhaps someday I'll make a list of them. But for now I'll just gather them about me like the familiar objects that make one's house one's home. And as I look about me I'm reminded of what Angelica said to me as we stood in the Aquario surrounded by so much that is exotic and exciting. When I asked her if she liked what she saw, she replied "Me faltan ojos para ver."
Notes--Me faltan ojos para ver
"Me...ver": I lack eyes enough to see it all.
"kitchen": most village houses have a free-standing wooden structure behind the main house as their kitchen--wood smoke inside is not very comfortable.
"jugo", "galletas", "mentas": juice, crackers, mints.
"orgullo", "Faro a Colón": pride; Christopher Columbus lighthouse.
"KM 14": some of the barrios of the capital are named by their distance from the center of town, ie. kilometer 14.
"abrazito": little hug.
"funeraria": funeral home.
"campo ladies", "fajadas": village ladies; working diligently.
"calizos": thong sandals worn to keep one's feet out of the dirt and mud in the campo. They help to prevent one's catching parasites.
"El sandwich": The world's largest sandwich. A children's book.
"Tomás...vayas": Tom, I need help, don't leave me!
Mami left today. She went to work in La Vega. Mami y Papi had a fight a long time ago. We lived with Mami before she left. Papi lived with Güelita.
Now, I live with Güelita. Bani and Rocky live with Güelita, too. When Papi comes home late at night, he sleeps in the bed next to ours. Bani, Rocky and I sleep in the other bed.
Bani likes to play caballos with Judy. They visit Tita, and Tina, and Agustina, and Liu. They chase the cows out of the conuco. They go with Papi to milk the cow. They ride with Tío on the motorcycle. They go get mangoes and chinas and almendras. Mami let me play with them. Güelina says I can't run with Judy and Bani. Güelina says I can't climb on the Dutch door and swing like Judy does. Güelina doesn't like that I go visit Tita, or Tina, or Agustina, or Liu. Güelina wants me with her. Güelina wants me to sit with my legs together on the chair. Güelina wants me to fetch the aceite from the store, and sweep the floor, and take Papi and Tío and Güelito their cafecito. Güelina wants me to watch Rocky.
I want to play with Bani and Judy. Güelina says I can't. Güelina says I have to be a good little girl.
I donít remember when I got to my site, but I believe it went something like this. Getting out of the route taxi, I grabbed a motorcycle-taxi--my dazzlingly white, Peace Corps issue motorcyle helmet shining in the sun. Passing staring villagers I stared back. I had never lived in a rice field before, and the concept was still rather shocking. The staring faces were these: Virgilio and his five kids, Fran in his rice field, Chilo with his brood, Fe with her daughters Mirabal and Conce at the grocery shack. In short, that gets me into "town". Chocha, Ramón, Tita and Felipe took me to my Doñaís house where I was greeted by Freddy, Zoraida, Judy, ĎMando, Juan and Minín. It took me a long time to learn these strangerís names.
And what do you do when you live in a strangerís house. Iíd like to say how I did it, what made the time go by, how I earned their confidence and they mine. But aside from reading Michener in a week, and fighting with Luís the evangelical, the first month is somewhat a blur. How we turned our stares into smiles I really donít know. The uncertain moments I donít remember--though I know they were there. I know it came after goofing with the girls about the glories of spooning, and after Yésica gave me 22 beans with my rice--I know because I counted them out loud to her chagrin and the familyís entertainment. I know it came after seeing yet again the spread of food on the table while everyone else sat out back. I went to the cupboard and grabbed a bowl and spoon; serving myself from the table I too went out back and snagged a campo chair. I sat down, leaned precariously back against the wall, craddled my bowl of food in one hand, and plied that very large spoon with the other. And that was the end of eating at the table.
Many nights followed as Juan Tía and I sat in the darkness of the back kitchen watching through the door as the "youngins" fought the moths and mosquitos flying around the inside kitchenís bare bulb. We talked about love and life, here and there, about politics and history, about religion, about the beautiful boy Judy as he fell slowly asleep in my lap. I know my Doña was confused and hurt when I moved and came by less and less. Nights spent at the house became infrequent as I opted to hang at the grocery shack listening to tinny bachata and enjoying the stars of a lightless campo. But I loved Minín and she loved me, and she came to accept my quirks and lunchtime visits.
And then suddenly it was October and two years had gone by. I wouldnít say they flew, but I wouldnít say they crept, either. Although I loved "my people", on that Thursday night, when we held the last work meeting, and with Juan Tía and Ali, my favorite "errand boy", giving me moral support as I packed by kerosene light, I wasnít rocked by lost love. Juan Tía sat with me and talked intermittently about this or that, but I knew he wasnít there to talk; he was there sharing these last moments--being strong for me and quietly fulfilling his own emotional needs. Ali kept up a more constant chatter asking for this or that, principally my Swiss Army knife. The pile of stuff slowly grew as my homemade bulletin boards full of postcards, pictures and letters came down from the walls, as the bookcase was emptied, as the dishes were packed.
In the morning the pickup was two hours late. I had planned to leave before the campo was too awake, but when it finally arrived I had 20 helpers to load my stuff. Twenty minutes later everything was in--except my new house keys which I left hanging on the wall. We closed the hatch and I looked around. Gabriel gave me his cigar-smelling hand, and Vaque did too. Juan just looked on, confident but sad. The muchachos were lined up along the wall: Davey with Albani; Chamo with Rocky. Nachi stood with Judy who suddenly asked, "Paí dónde va Tomás?"("Where's Tomas going?") As he looked up at me, his smile became a crying frown and I held him in my arms.
"Tú me quieres, Jú?" "Do you love me, Ju?"
"Sí", heíd always respond. "Yes", he'd aways respond.
"Tú sabes que yo te quiero, Jú?" "You know I love you, right, Ju?"
"Sí!", heíd always tell me. "Yes!", he'd always tell me.
"Pues, un abrazo, y un besito,"
he always let me have them. "Then, give me a hug, and a little kiss,"
he always let me have them.
"Y úno para tí" he always wanted his. "And here's one for you,"
he always wanted his.
As the pickup took me away, the same faces looked on as I went by. No longer were there stares: there were smiles. I knew them, and they knew me. No longer were they showing the general interest of villagers watching the world, they were watching me, with love.
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