Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yale Service Trip to the DR -- Day 3 ("La Carnaval de la Barriga Verde")

Sunday, March 13, 2011

After a long wind up, we were finally ready for the pitch. Breakfast, a pep talk, and off to Las Charcas. We were about to start our work.

Getting up was a little tough at first because the carnaval music had gone late into the night. We quickly shook off our fatigue during our walk over to the Libano for breakfast. The morning scene at the Libano became a familiar one: tables set up in the rooftop room with a buffet of food. The breakfasts were eggs, fruit and other assorted additions. And, there was coffee. Not enough the first morning, but plenty every day after that. The strong, sweet DR coffee was a culinary highlight for me.

That first morning Mark Dollhopf gave us a pep talk and Jose asked us how we were doing. Jose's question "How are you doing?" became a bit of a running joke, actually, as he demanded ever-increasing amounts of enthusiasm in response. Through the week, there was no shortage of enthusiasm.

That morning, Tyler and I were going to ride with everyone to the school. We would get the lay of the land, sort some books our group had brought with us and then return to the Libano to put together the battery-powered keyboards. Although I was eager to get going, I was happy to ease in a bit.

Before we got to the school, the entire group visited the home work site for a group picture in the shell of the house the construction team would be building.  The building didn't look like much when we got there, but we could make out its rough outline.  I came to learn later how much prep work it took to get the house to its starting position, and how much work it took to get the house built from her to the finish in just a few days.  It is really very impressive to see the work get done -- through a coordinated effort between our volunteer group and volunteers from the community.

The "Before" Group Picture with the whole YASC Team!  (Tyler and I are in the back bedroom on the right.)
 With our picture taken, we were off to the school  When we arrived at the school, there were a bunch of kids waiting for us. They were enthusiastic and very curious.  We were enthusiastic and a little nervous.  

The education team meets the Las Charcas kids for the first time!

Our first task was to sort the books people had brought. Tyler and I brought five books, but others brought dozens. I don't know how many books we brought, but it had to be hundreds. All sorts of books were there, most in Spanish but some were bilingual. We saw Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss books, Donde Viven Los Monstruos
(Where the Wild Things Are), and scores of others . . . . pretty much the modern American children's cannon made it to Las Charcas. The teachers were speechless, as they started going through them.

Once the sorting was done, Tyler and I headed back to get the keyboards set up. We were joined by the computer group, who were setting up the laptops they would use all week.

As we rode back to San Juan, I got my first clear view of the moutains that bracket the valley we were working in. Capped by Pico Duarte,the Caribbean's highest peak, the range to the East of us, along with its foothills, is a verdant and beautiful range. Rising more precipitously from the valley floor than Vermont's Green Mountains, with a green/brown hue similar to Southern California's rolling hills, these mountains provided an incongruously pretty back drop to the poverty we found in Las Charcas.


As we drove back, I could not help but think of my brother, Luke, who split his time between the Tetons in Wyoming and the mountains of Vermont. Life was too short, he reasoned, to live anywhere but in a beautiful place. The last time we spoke, I was struggling with some issue at work that was taking my time away from Tyler and his little sister (we only had two kids, then).  I asked him what he thought I should do. "I can' tell you what to do," he said, "but I can tell you this: this ain't no dress rehearsal."  With that we said what turned out to be our final goodbye.

I thought about Luke and his advice riding back to get the keyboards ready. No, life is no dress rehearsal, and that was really why I was in the DR. I had brought Tyler here to help shape his life, to show him possibilities, to show him how much he has and how much he can give others.  As much as I wanted to help the children we would meet, I was here to show Tyler, and myself, something, and to have a week of uninterrupted time with Tyler. 

As we put together the pianos, we further refined our plans for class and then we were off to return to the group for lunch and our final planning session in the school.

Lunch that day was pretty much as it was every day thereafter -- a buffet of rice of one sort or another, chicken and a side of beans.  One day, we also had a delicious eggplant dish.

After lunch, we went back to the school to set up.  I brought one of the keyboards with me, in the hope that Tyler might be able to work with a few of the kids I figured we would find there.  Tyler was apprehensive, though, as the kids' enthusiasm took a bit of getting used to.  The other thing that was new was the concept of personal space . . . there wasn't much of one.  The DR is no place for someone who is not comfortable with overt displays of affection and with people reaching out (quite literally) to make a personal connection.  Within a day, we were used to the close proximity of everyone, and the displays of affection, the boisterous conversations and high energy became a very welcome norm.

Getting to know the school in Las Charcas!

During our afternoon, as Tyler and I were getting used to our new surroundings, we stopped to watch two of the dance instructors -- Remy Shaber and Wei Yin -- jump right in and start working with some of the kids they had just met.  Their calm, confidence and warmth was impressive.  They are both veterans of previous YASC trips and I ended up looking to them throughout the week as role models of how to connect and teach.  It was a pleasure to watch as they started with the macarena, which quickly took on a distinctly Dominican feel as they worked with the students.  That extemporaneous interaction on the first day morphed later into a show on the last night, with the school girls taking the macarena as a base for their own dance that they performed for our group and the whole town.

With our afternoon done, we had to head back to get ready to attend the Sunday Carnaval de la Berriga Verde parade.  (A Berriga Verde is a green belly.  I still don't quite get why San Juaneros are called green bellies.)  As we got ready, Tyler remarked about how much he liked meeting all of the YASC volunteers who were with us.  "They are all really interesting," he said.  "I think I am going to learn a lot just by working near them."  He turned out to be dead on with this observation.

With a few minutes of rest, we were off to the Carnaval, seated in a VIP section right on the parade route.  There we were, 90 some odd Yalies with our YASC shirts on sitting together in a review stand.  Soon, it became clear that we were on national TV and that our presence was being touted as part of the "pre-game" show for the Carnaval Parade.  It was there that we got our first taste of what the San Juan de la Maguana Mayor, Hanoi Sanchez, was like.  A charismatic and high-energy woman, Mayor Sanchez is the first woman to be elected mayor of San Juan and the first San Juan mayor to be re-elected.  Throughout our stay, she and those working with her made every effort to teach us about San Juan de la Maguana and their desire to partner with Yale in the future. 

Once the parade started, we got to see a side of the local heritage that was quite unique.  Deeply steeped in an iconography that I still don't quite understand, the parade was replete with devils, farmers, and lots and lots of dancing.  There were repeated references, we later learned, to local history in these images.  My pictures do not do justice to the pageantry of La Carnaval de la Barriga Verde, so I have borrowed some below from our group's photojournalist extraordinaire, Paedric O'Sullivan . My personal favorite group were the Abogados del Diablo (The Devil's Lawyers). 

Once the parade wrapped up, the group headed out to dinner.  Tyler and I were wiped out by then, as were most of the other families with kids.  We ended up calling it an early evening and heading back to the hotel.

When we got to the hotel, we got our key at the front desk and headed to our room.  Our key was actually a key chain with three keys, each of them different.  (The only similarity they had was that they were all emblazoned with the word "Yale" on them.)  This was odd because there was only one lock.  Each night we ended up going through our ritual of figuring out which key would work  We figure out which one it was pretty quickly, but it turned out that for some reason we also had to try the other ones first to get the final key to work.  Through trial and error, we finally figured out how to use our mismatched keys to get through our  door.  This turned out to be an apt metaphor for the entire week. 

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