Friday, December 23, 2011

Las Batatas Water System Inauguration, September 24, 2011

*Tim Hall, owner of the nearby ecolodge in Tubagua, took this photo

I officially finished my Peace Corps service this last Saturday, after a voluntary two-month extension. While my Peace Corps duties are over, I’m still hanging around on the island for the next couple of months. I fell in love with a native and decided that with my new technical skills, I can make a living as the plumber of the Las Batatas Water System.

That was a joke.

Not a joke. After taking an Open Water Scuba Diving Course, I fell in love with diving and so I’m here doing an internship with The Dive Academy in Las Galeras, Samana. There isn’t much diving in winter in Maine, or in any New England season for that matter. And I can’t think of a better or more opportune time to live in the Caribbean and enhance my dive qualifications. So there you have it.

Don’t expect me home for the holidays. But I do hope you’ll consider a Caribbean adventure and give me a jingle in the New Year.

I send you my love and good wishes. Please be in touch. I miss you all terribly.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I left my house at 7:30 and the men had already left for the hills. Almost a year since we planted our first PVC pipes and now, as the construction of our water system “take-two” is nearly complete, the work brigades begin the tedious job of unearthing the original pipeline.

Its really comparable to digging potatoes, let’s say, sweet potatoes because we’re living in Las Batatas which means “the sweet potatoes” in Spanish. You plant batatas, they grow, and then you dig them up and use them. No good campesino would leave a crop of batata to rot in the ground, especially if the crop values some 50,000 pesos, about the equivalent of 1,350 US dollars.

With this perspective, asking my community to pull up 120 PVC pipes that were buried in the ground last year, knowing that we will use them to complete the pipeline in the new system seems like campo logic. There aren’t enough funds remaining in the project bank to buy a complete set of pipes for the new system, but what we lack in money, we make up for in big guns, aka strong able-bodied men.

To rewind…in August, a property owner along the proposed pipeline of the Las Batatas water system refused to sign permission for the water project to build within his private cow pasture. The man was unrelenting in his position and the community was left in disbelief. I mean really, how can anyone deny an entire community the right to tap water? My Program Director announced that he would come to the village to help assess the status of the project. The community had potentially lost their chance to build a water system. If property owners along the pipeline won’t give permission, if the water from the spring can’t be re-directed along an alternative route , if there isn’t another water source, well, then Peace Corps pulls out.

Thankfully, I had taken the time in the initial community diagnostic to visit various springs besides the one that we chose for the original design. I suspected that one of these springs would work, and so I presented the plan to the community leaders that we measure the spring’s potency and survey a potential pipeline route. People reluctantly joined me in surveying a new system, all the while hoping that something would magically change and that we would continue with the first project.

The new spring and the new design, were incredibly promising. I presented the plan to the community in October and explained that we would need permission from all the landowners, in writing, before starting. The pipes purchased for the other project, functioned for the alternative system, meaning that work could begin immediately and also making that the new system economically feasible. I ordered that work start at the spring catchment tank and follow down the conduction line to the community. Everyday of work, the people could let the water run through the pipes, visually affirming their progress in bringing piped water to the families of Las Batatas.

On December 6th, I purchased the materials for the spring catchment box and work began on the 7th for the two day tank construction.

And from there, the project took off. We worked January through til March, spent a week on the storage tank and then started down the hill toward the community where we are now in the process of connecting each house to the main distribution line.

The catch. We still have 120 PVC pipes buried discreetly in private cow pastures above the community. The remains of an ill-fated first attempt. Now that we are nearing the end of the construction, there is a shortage of pipes and the only way to move forward is to go back and undo our handy work.

I really doubted that the day of digging up pipes would ever come. People swore to me that they would never do the same work twice. I expected I’d have to make mock departure, pack my bags and threaten to leave for good, before they’d grab a pick-axe and recover the pipes.

But today I was impressed. A brigade showed up early and with five men, a boy, and myself at the rear, we pulled out 26 pipes intact. The men were positive, the work came naturally. And while the work is far from over, I am beginning to reevaluate the capacity of the people of Las Batatas. These ragtag bands that can’t come to work on time (if at all), that gossip and tire easily, leaving the job site early. Their endless complaining. Their irresponsibility and the imperfection of the work.

Today, the brigade captain led the charge and was unbreakable. He pushed the men to dig up more pipes, knowing that he was the first to brave the job and would thus set the precedent. The men were in good spirits and didn’t complain. As a team we were encouraged by our progress and ready to take on the tough work ahead.

It was a good day. When work wrapped up, I rolled down the hill to the Doña’s house, gulped cold water and supped a cafecita, basking in success. I then recruited a crew of girls and boys and we took off to the creekbed where we threw ourselves from one cold natural tub to the next, tumbling down the canyon waterfalls to the river below.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Beach Trip to Playa Cangrejo with youth from my community and from the community of a neighboring volunteer, Justin. The group did a trash pick-up, built stick houses and competed in relay races. The day was supported with funds from Kids to Kids (check out their website)
Encounters en la loma


To realize termites are consuming my bed. My NEW BED. Custom-made.
My dollhouse is crumbling around me...

And my enemigo raton is scampering along the zinc panels of my roof as I write.

I wake. Restless. Prepare cafe...Its already 5am.

And encounter my "Fiddler on the Roof" perched above the food cabinet. Daring me to open the treasure chest.


The daily duel to fight for a right to a tranquilo existence is butting up against the fury, creepy-crawly, squawky, squeaky, pajaritos.

Just the other day, in the midst of preparing a concrete floor for a latrine I am constructing in the back patio, I get a hairy surprise...

I go to the old outdoor kitchen, the rama', outfitted with a 3-stone firepit and cacao-masher. Old PVC pipes from a previous failed private water system hang in the rafters like molding spaghetti. I pull one out to make a mold for the ventilation tube in the latrine floor and as I tilt the tube down to pull it out, SWOOSH! and down slides Mickey, PLOP!, right on my head. He flails onto the ground with the force of my convulsions and screaming. And its a CHOMP and the neighbor's dog bites the thing hole, until the eyeballs pop out of the sockets.

Por Fin! Enough!

My project is presently on hold due to a land dispute. Absentee land owners, a frazzled nervous vieja with her ex-Trujillo Policia of a marido to refer to them in campesino terms, are opposed to passing pipeline over their heirloom farmland. But here in Las Batatas we're flies caught in the honey so to speak. Some 100 pipes are already buried 2 feet underground and a termite trail crawls right over the landowners' hillsides.

What now?!

We can't just pull the 50 pipes out. And we can't just abandon the project.

The landowners initially responded positively to the project construction. In campesino terms, they had the stamp of approval....under "la mata de 'mendra" the word was a GO. And then the son caretaker who cares for the cows had agreed and given us the pass to start digging. The son was there fixing the fences and tending the finca while we were sweating in the trenches on his family's land.

But. And there's the rub. I had told the community back in March that we needed documented confirmation from all landowners. We had marched up to talk to the two local owners near the water source already. And then my Dona's husband owns the other finca. This stretch of pipeline was the last straw. I went down one night with the alcalde (emotional sheriff of the community) when the woman was in town for the weekend. But she was a nervous-wreck when we arrived at the her neighbors. So we left without even a saludo.

When I go this last time to talk to the jefes, its a big N-O. Oh no you don't pass those pipes inside my finca.

I had gone down to the family's house in the neighboring pueblo of Yasica across from the church while they were in town for an anniversary funeral. A rainy dark day. The only community member who agreed to work on the permission was a younger woman in her 30s, a niece of my Dona. But of no aquaintance with the owners and their former life as Batatateros. Somehow, my Dona and the alcalde, both amigos by family of the owners, refused to join me on such a critical diligencia to secure the success of the water system project. Hmmm

And now I understand.

The husband was duro. We entered the conversation and he was aready livid and tired of me.

I felt crushed
I left defeated

Had I just waisted a year for nothing? To see a project of good-intention frozen by a cold hand.

I returned to Las Batatas to present the news. And tossed in bed that night, unable to sleep. Think.
I felt like a failure.

How had this been over-looked? I had worked, beginning in March to get permission from land owners. It just wasn't a good time when we went down the first time to communicate with the aforementioned landowners. The woman was a set of nerves and couldn't be seen.

But the question stands...when?

I pushed the community for the permission. But then, somehow, the fact that Milito, caretaker, family-member, confirmed to "Go Ahead" and work, we started.

I gave in then...Agreeing to this halfway pass.

The day after the fateful meeting with the owner, the community was prepped to lug sand from the river for various water crossings, the spring box and deposit tank construction. I opened the school and chose to break the news to the workers as they rose to organize for work.

I felt responsible.
I felt guilty.
I called my jefe

I sat like a castigated schoolchild as the community members convinced themselves of their rights...And how all along they had said it. They had warned me.

The stories formulated. Yes, they had warned me.


But this is how campo stories start. Talk yourself into a truth.

Whose to say they didn't talk themselves into the idea the owners first said "Yes" under la mata de 'mendra?

So progress is paralyzed.

The owners returned this past Thursday. The Father of the Church and the Sindico both agreed to support the effort to speak with the couple. Everyone in the Yasica area is privy to our jodona situation up en la loma. Everyone has their opinion, their piece.

We are onto the strategy of convincer.

But who the hell is willing to stand up and fight?

The fated evening (tonight) my Dona, an elderly fellow known as Chuoa, and myself, waited in the evening after the misa until 730pm for the Father to return after a church service in a neighboring community. We approached the house in the dark.

The couple was called for and they came to the door, the marido with a policeman's lantern cast upward. The light placing fire in his black eyes.

And he raged. Confronting the Father like a dog. Barking responses without listening. Throwing the Father's title on the floor. Snarling to throw the Church out of the fight. Questioning the Father's intelligence, a Godly man who had studied law and made a profession of representing the repressed.

The owner, threw us out. We would never have his word to placing a pipeline on his land. He had never given permission. He would not destroy the privacity of his territory, heirloom.

I could hardly keep from crying. I cried in silence. And watched.

And fought myself.

Who was I kidding? What game was I playing?

Sometimes my work is so far outside my experience I feel useless.

So now we are over convincing and onto other options.

Option One, we can fight la ruta de la mala. Mala meaning, by law.

We can see how many rights we can pull as a community that has a right to safe drinking water and can't find an alternative route to pass a pipeline.

Or Option Two, we can drop it and approach another spring source.

One I've already measured. Its not as strong, more susceptible to future contamination, and will not provide the same pressure by gravity. Looking at the survey results again, the tank location would have to be dropped 5 meters just to ensure it could fill with water. The first houses would have, at most, 5 meters of head.

Entonces, one source is secure by la naturaleza and jodona by ownership, the other is a safe go-ahead, but wont provide the consumers half the service they imagine.

Catch 22.

My neighboring volunteer, Duncan, moves forward in his project as he takes off for another adventure weekend drinking or surfing. He shakes his head as I throw excuses for staying at home in the campo to attend meetings that fall through, convincing myself that I'm not wasting my time.

While on hold, I've started up English classes again and I go into the school when I can to help children learn to write and read. I take care of a cat i call Tigra.

I mop my house my house like a Dona and I've learned to wash sheets by hand in a streambed. I prepare cafe on cue. I fight battles with termites and rats. I accept that things wont happen today and are unlikely to get done tomorrow either. I practice Catholocism to plant ideas of forgiveness and acceptance in my stubborn head. And I am outwardly happy as I forget I have no friends.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Five Star Campo Accomodations coming at ya!

I didn't have a chance to mention previously that I relocated sleeping quarters about 400 meters down the way from my Doña's residence. I'm now shacking up in what was once a little colmado, town grocery, a two room flat set back from the road. The absentee owner, Ana Rosa, is a charming grandmother who recently left the island for Nueba Yol' (Dominican for New York). She left the house and the shack in the hands of her daughter who resides an hour away from Las Batatas in the city of Santiago. The place has become the family's campo get-away. They rarely visit except for holidays, and then of course on the off chance, to pick up a bunch of bananas or a sack of dried cacoa from the conuco (garden/orchard).

So I was actually living exclusively in the shack until my friend, Christi Holmes, decided to visit a week back. I explained to Ana Rosa's daughter my desire to accommodate my American guest who would be plenty overwhelmed after a few candlelit bucket baths, never mind sleeping on the floor without access to "flush facilities". With this in mind, they handed me the key to the house and its kitchen, bedroom and indoor bathroom (a real luxury). So in one fell swoop I went from camping in the sticks to relaxing in a resort. 'at a girl Christi!

Out in front of the house I've got the town sombrero, a giant Mata de 'Mendra, where my sheriff, his family, and all the town caballeros take pause under the branches to watch the world go by. The sheriff's son is the caretaker, watchiman, for Ana Rosa's house, so he and his campo wife (they are not wedded in the books, but who in the campo ever is?), sleep in a room abutting my kitchen. I serve them up sugary cafecitas every morning in exchange for their services as watchiman (security) when I'm away.

I had initially thought that moving into my own place, I'd find more privacy and Me-time to do work and also relax. While I am finding it is nice to call a place my own, I can't say that I am ever short on visitas. The kitchen is almost always bustling with muchachos and muchachas who like to swing by throughout the day, setting themselves up at the table to color with my crayons, hoping they'll receive some sort of brindis (treats). I've already made dozens of chocolate chip cookies and a batch of blueberry pancakes, I'm thinking about branching out to share the wonders of buttery french toast and banana bread.

So, if you've got a recipe or two, send 'em my way...


Along with 540 PVC pipes.

Yes friends, we are ready to begin construction on the pipeline.

It seemed almost a lost cause after so many months of struggling to raise funds in what turned out to be a largely unsuccessful tug-of-war with local political candidates campaigning for the May 15th election. As it It turned out, the money for the water project arrived in the form of web donations to my Peace Corps Partnership (PCPP), a grant that permits Peace Corps volunteers to receive direct donations from family, friends, etc. I would like to take the opportunity now to thank and recognize all of you who donated to the fund. Gracias para todo!

The families of the community of Las Batatas are coming up for air following a long period of doubt and pessimism where they could hardly imagine we'd ever find the resources to build the water system. For a while there, I actually felt like they must see me as yet another corrupt politician, filling their heads with empty promises..."Vote Amy, #1 Gringa...segurara tu vaso de agua nunca se seca" (vote for Amy as number one Gringa...ensure your water glass never goes dry). However now with the money from the PCPP as well as support from the Comite de Yasiqueros, a group of Dominican families living in New York, I see a renewed enthusiasm among my Batatas neighbors.

We are ready to pick up the shovels and dig in!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The quest for Los Hobos...

Two hours scrambling up mud-slopped roads through a blur of raindrops.

A Dominican version of a blizzard.

And as always, when the trucks can´t make it, there are always the donkeys and foot soldiers (us) to lug all the clinic´s medical supplies up the mountain...

-a memory of just one of many a journey in the course of a Medical Mission executed by the Partners´for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic. This January, I jumped on board the traveling clinic for a week, translating for the nursing students and healthcare providers as they treated people in communities lacking easy access to quality medical services.

At Last! we arrive at the temple in the clouds...

We set up a day clinic in the church, working quickly from eleven to three, which leaves us just enough time to pack up and trek the two hours back to the base of the mountain, escaping the village before dark.