Saturday, March 26, 2011

Yale Service Tour to the DR -- Day 2 ("La Duana")

Saturday, March 12

Tyler is a typical teenager and he likes to sleep in on Saturday mornings.  A lot.  Our plan was for him to sleep in late on our first day in the DR because the rest of our week was going to consist of early mornings and long days.  Unfortunately for Tyler, though, our little piano snafu at customs made sleeping in a luxury he would not be afforded.

Early that morning, I called Jose from Cambiando Vidas, and we agreed to meet at 10.  Jose would take me out to the airport and help Tyler and me with getting our piano (and most of the piano books) out of the customs office.  When we met up with Jose, we also met one of colleagues, Rebecca, who joined us on our trip to customs.

During our trip to the airport, we got to know each other, and Rebecca and Jose coordinated on logistics.  Their biggest task of the day was getting our group of almost 100 people from Santo Domingo to San Juan de la Maguana, all the while factoring in flight delays, personal requests, and the like.  I am sure that they needed our little customs excursion like a hole in the head.  Despite the obvious inconvenience of the task, they did not seem phased.  Instead, they brought a flexibility of thought to the task that I found refreshing.  They seemed to know that the week would be filled with unexpected road blocks and that part of our team's missions was to find ways around them.

Our foray into Dominican customs is probably worth a whole post all to itself, so I will spare you the details.  Our hour or so there included negotiations with FedEx and finally a meeting with a senior customs official.  It seemed that the problem with the piano was that its declared value did not match the customs officer's view of the piano's value.  Even though it was six years old, it had been well maintained and appeared new.  That was the problem.  During our meeting, Jose and Rebecca politely advocated on our behalf, with Rebecca helping translate everything for us.  My Spanish was good enough for me to realize that we were not going to get the piano until Monday.  As Jose explained when we left, in the Dominican Republic many things are done through personal interaction.  If the customs officials get a respectful and reasonable explanation, he went on, everything would be fine and we would get the piano and the books on Monday night or sometime Tuesday.

Although we were disappointed, neither Jose nor Rebecca let that disappointment turn into negativity.  We would simply have to alter our plan to get the job done.  Everything would still turn out well; we would just need to take a different path to our goal.

With that lesson learned, we headed over the nearby airport to await the other trip participants.  For the next couple of hours, we hung out at a pizza place inside the airport, as our group grew from a few of us to about 80 of us.  By 2:00, we were ready to board buses to head off to San Juan.

On the bus, we sat near Chris, a Yalie who now works with Cambiando Vidas.  He had the same type of relaxed, good-natured demeanor as Jose, Rebecca and the other CV people we met, Judy and Charlie.  Chris regaled us with tales of past trips, explanations of how he got involved with CV and what we could expect when we got to San Juan.

By the time we were an hour into our drive to San Juan, my conversation with Chris and my earlier interaction with Jose and Rebecca, made me realize something important about CV.  Although these people were very nice, and were flexible and relaxed in their approach to our group, they were not casual about our project.  Quite the opposite.  They shared a focus and a determination that exhibited itself throughout the trip.  They have an approach to development that they have thought a lot about -- and they stressed over and over that they are not a charity passing things out; they are helping the community build through collaboration and community participation.  They also have a very firm idea, obviously informed by years of experience and deep cultural understanding, of what will work and what will not.  Within that framework, they allowed us to  bring our own experiences and ideas to our work.  But, it was clear to me on the first day that they would not allow the group to veer off track or to do things, however well intentioned, that would detract from CV's mission or the mission of the Yale Alumni Service Corps.  They have a fierce love of and loyalty to the people we were there to serve that became more and more apparent during our stay.

CV has a great video that will give you an idea of what our initial trip to San Juan was like and what CV is all about:

During our drive to San Juan, we stopped by a beautiful, black sand beach for a late lunch.  This was a chance for everyone to meet other program participants and to relax a little after what was for some many hours of travel.  This was one of our first glimpses of the stunning physical beauty of the DR.

With lunch done, we got on the bus and made our way to San Juan de la Maguana.  We rallied at the Hotel Libano, where we had a dinner, an orientation and we got to meet the family for whom our group was going to build a home.

The family, a father and mother, their daughter and her husband and daughter, were really friendly.  When Tyler and I went to their table to introduce ourselves, the grandfather thanked us for coming down to help the community.  He then told us, with a mischievous smile, that we better get to bed soon, as we had to get up early the next morning to start work with him on the family's new house.  They were all very excited at the prospect of building with us their new home.

As the night wound down, everyone got their room assignments.  There would be two hotels, we had been told, as our group was simply too big to all stay in one.  As names were called, people learned which hotel would be their home for the week.  We were in the group who stayed at the Hotel Maguana, which was a few blocks from the Hotel Libano, located right off of the main square in town.

The Hotel Maguana, we learned, was indeed centrally located.  For the first two nights, the square was packed with Carnaval revelers (more on that later), so it was very festive (and loud) those first two nights.  Our room was big and clean . . . and it had its own hot water tank, which was very nice.  It was not the Ritz, but bother Tyler and I had big comfortable beds, which made us happy.

Once we settled into our room, we spent a little more time going over our piano teaching game plan.  We would have six, battery-powered keyboards but not the bigger, electronic keyboard we had planned to use (at least for the first few days).  And, our Spanish-language piano books were also still in customs.  So, we threw out Plan A, and went to Plan B.  We honed it and would map out the specifics of Plan B the next morning when we visited the school.

Still a little nervous that Plan B might not work, we went to sleep.  I drifted off to the vibrant music of Carnaval thumping in the nearby square.  The music gave me confidence that whatever we might do, the piano project would probably work.  After all, music is a huge part of life in the DR and on our way to the hotel, we saw two boys, probably around 6 or so, dancing down the street.  With that much music in the air, we would probably be able to get our project off the ground.

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